7 questions for Sajid Javid about the government’s approach to tackling youth violence

Home secretary Sajid Javid mouths off. Image: Getty.

Today, at the Conservative Party Conference, home secretary Sajid Javid will announce his £200m “Youth endowment fund”to tackle the surge in violent crime. The announcement will come at the end of a gruelling summer, with homicide numbers already reaching 100 – a third of whom were young people between the ages of 16 to 24 years – in London alone.

Javid will reveal that the government’s new “public health” approach to youth violence will see it being treated as a “contagious disease” – meaning early identification, multiple-agencies working together and promoting deterrence and protective messages will be a critical part of the approach. Key agencies, such as police, schools, social workers, NHS and youth services, will be encouraged to cooperate and work together in a holistic way.

We should welcome the Home Secretary’s new public health approach to knife and gun crime among young people. But it’s important to note that the national government is not the first body in the country to adopt this strategy. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan unveiled this strategy last month by setting up a Violence Reduction Unit, and it has been trialled, with success, in Scotland for the last several years, too.

But as always with government policies, the devil is in the detail. So here are seven questions we need to ask Sajid Javid to better understand what the government’s strategy will look like in practice:

1. Why is the government delaying action by undertaking a consultation on the legal duty to address crime like a disease?

There have already been a hundred homicides in London this year, a third of whom are young people, predominantly from ethnic minority backgrounds. The consultation process, which likely means that the health approach will not start this year, suggests that the Home Office has not determined what this new duty should consist of, how agencies should work together and what the purpose of this strategy is.

This would be shocking given that knife crime has been a particularly prominent feature for the last two years, and ONS figures in March 2018 showed an increase of 16 per cent in knife crime.

2. How is the Home Secretary confident that a model which appears to have worked in Scotland and Chicago will be equally successful here?

Violence doesn’t happen in a social vacuum: context matters. We know from research that high rates of crime and violence mostly affect deprived and disadvantaged areas, so it would be naïve to ignore the closure of 600 youth centres between 2012 to 2016 (resulting in the loss of 140,000 places for young people) and the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowances for 16-18 year olds in education or training.

3. Given the significant cuts in police officers since 2010, how will the home secretary ensure that public agencies achieve the right balance between suppression (punishment) and protection (deterrence) for young people?

Since 2010, there has been a decrease of 21,000 police officer numbers, including 5 per cent Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs). That means there are fewer police officers on the streets intervening early in domestic/peer conflicts, fewer community police officers sourcing local intelligence and building trusting relationships and less accessible police stations in local areas and parks, because they’ve been closed down.

4. How will the Home Secretary ensure that the public sector prioritises their duty of care or safeguarding of children and young people at risk of violence or crime?

This is perhaps the most important question of all. It will be a significant issue for the police given the overwhelming evidence of police viewing black people as suspects first before they perceive them as victims.

Stop and search data has shown that black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched compared to their white counterparts and three times more likely to be arrested for the same crimes. These police practices have highlighted to the black community how the police have struggled with getting the balance right between protecting black communities and policing them.

5. Why is the Home Secretary focusing so much on gangs when we know that gang-related crime only accounts for 5 per cent of all serious knife-related injuries for under 25 year olds?

Not only will the focus on “gangs” overlook the threats, fears and anxieties which cause young people (both perpetrators and victims) to carry weapons in high crime neighbourhoods. It will also further stigmatise and alienate young black people who are wrongly perceived to be in gangs.

This is not a minor problem. The definition of “gangs” is highly problematic because it doesn’t have a legal definition, and it’s also highly racialised. Even MPs have raised concerns about BME people being funnelled into the criminal justice system through  misplaced perceptions about gangs and black people.

In addition, the Metropolitan Police’s gang-mapping Matrix database has been criticised by Amnesty International and the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism for discriminating against BME young people. Over three-quarters of the people on the Met’s Gangs’ Matrix database are black and 87 per cent are from BME backgrounds.

6. What do the home secretary and the Department for Education intend to do about the high numbers of school exclusions, particularly in relation to BME, SEN and GRT children?

For years practitioners and police working with troubled children have reported that children attending Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) are identified quickly by criminals and groomed into County Lines crime, yet this has been ignored.

But while the increase of school exclusions since 2012 is a serious concern, the emphasis needs to be on how DfE and Ofsted can work with schools to reduce exclusions (including providing them with more funds and support), rather than on penalising schools who take on children with behavioural issues.

7. Will the government’s public health approach focus on helping young people growing up in deprived areas develop social cognitive skills?

Such skills address the role their identity plays in their life journeys, develop their critical thinking skills and develop their conflict resolution skills. The former president of the US, Barack Obama spent $200m on this programme alone.

Dr Zubaida Haque is deputy director of the race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust. She tweets at @zubhaque.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.