Knife crime: how can the problem be addressed without making it worse?

Officials warn well-intentioned initiatives could be counter-productive

Ken McCue in King’s Inns Park, Dublin, where as a teenager he witnessed a stabbing: ‘I didn’t sleep for ages. I still feel it,’ he says of the incident. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Ken McCue in King’s Inns Park, Dublin, where as a teenager he witnessed a stabbing: ‘I didn’t sleep for ages. I still feel it,’ he says of the incident. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Ken McCue was a young teenager in the late 1960s when he saw another youth being stabbed during an organised fight in the King’s Inn area of north Dublin just inches beside him.

“I saw a knife going into his side. It’s a scary, horrible thing to see, a knife going into someone and then being pulled out again. I didn’t sleep for ages. I still feel it,” recalls Mr McCue.

The story is not given to shock, but rather to make the case that knives have always been a problem, though, curiously, the statistics show that the number of serious stabbings has fallen to its lowest level for a decade.

“I remember a few years later coming back from a few pints with my friends and coming across a fella who had been stabbed in the heart with a stiletto knife,” he adds. “Knives have always been an issue.”

If the stabbing figures last year reduced by the number of contacts taking place on the State’s streets between young males, there is no doubt but that the problem is still a serious one.

In March last year, a boy in his mid-teens was seriously injured in a knife attack at a Luas stop in Leopardstown, Dublin, leading Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan to demand mandatory minimum sentences to deal with “an epidemic”.

The pattern has become familiar. A person is stabbed, leading to warnings that the crisis is out of control and that measures such as tougher sentences, awareness campaigns or knife amnesties are urgently needed.

Inaccurate narrative

However, according to gardaí and youth and people working with young people, the narrative is not only inaccurate, but is also counter-productive and may even cause more young people to carry knives.

“It gets amplified in the national news. Then, young people hear that and talk to their friends, they’re obviously going to start carrying knives,” says Jonathan Dowling, a youth worker with Belvedere Youth Club in the north inner-city, who believes that Covid-19 has made the situation worse.

“One life being lost is too many, but it can become overblown in a way.

“With nothing else going on, someone being attacked by a knife or caught with a knife it is higher up in the news than it would be in normal times,” he tells The Irish Times.

Youth workers, too, say they have seen little evidence of a rise in knife numbers: “I can’t say I’ve noticed any huge increase,” says Eddie Darcy of the Solas Project which works with young people in southwest inner-city Dublin.

Many of the ones that have happened, he said, involved older people attacking others in their homes, rather than stabbings by teenagers carrying blades on the streets.

Part of the problem lies in recent statistics which, if they are read in particular ways, suggest knife crime is on the increase. Between 2017 and 2019, seizures of knives rose by 33 per cent.

Last year, 2,243 knives were seized. More people have gone to hospital because of knife injuries between 2018 and 2019, too. However, the same statistics can show that things are not getting worse, or even that they are getting better.

More knives are being recorded as seized by gardaí, but that is partly down to better record-keeping by gardaí since 2016, while gardaí have carried out more searches in the last 18 months, too, to tackle drugs gangs.

And, while there was an increase in people hospitalised after knife attacks in 2019, this figure was still far lower than a decade ago when up to 300 people ended up in hospital.

Other metrics provide further grounds for optimism. There were 1,333 knife-related incidents reported to gardaí in 2020, a 13 per cent decrease on 2019.

In October 2019, 34 people were in prison for possessing a knife. In July 2021, that figure had dropped to 19.

Furthermore, provision figures for the first nine months of this year suggest knife seizures have returned to 2016 levels. So far in 2021 gardaí have seized an average of 143 knives per month, a 24 per cent decrease on last year.

Officials in the Department of Justice know that knife crime is seen as a major problem, but they are wary, too, of overstating the issue lest it play into people’s fears.

Knife crime is what criminologists call a “signal offence”, a crime which causes people to believe something is very wrong in society, even if the evidence suggests otherwise.

Reactions to news of a signal offence may see people being afraid to go out at night, keeping their children indoors, or even starting to carry a blade themselves.

Helen McEntee, who resumes her duties as Minister for Justice in the near future, earlier this year began a review of Garda powers to deal with knives to ensure “they have the necessary legal tools” to protect communities.

The results of this review are expected shortly. “The last thing we want to do is rush in and maybe even make the problem worse,” one official told The Irish Times.

Obvious problems

Stabbings always lead to calls for mandatory sentencing and knife amnesties, or public information campaigns, but there are problems with all three actions, say those close to the issue.

Media campaigns about the dangers of knives might imply that everyone is carrying a blade, a point recently made by senior gardaí and the North Inner City Community Safety Partnership.

It “might inadvertently cause more people to feel that the carrying of knives is more prevalent than it actually is”, the Department of Justice was told, according to documents seen by The Irish Times.

A knife amnesty is regularly proposed, too, by politicians. But this has obvious problems. Knives specifically designed for violence, such as flick knives, are relatively rare on the street.

Most knives used are easily-obtainable kitchen knives and an amnesty would do little to reduce numbers. In fact, sharpened screwdrivers, etc, are just as common and even harder to regulate.

“The only time you hear about a knife is if someone is going to get slashed, and they will get a slasher rather than a stabber,” says Mr Darcy. “So they’ll get a Stanley blade. That would be to give a warning, not to kill. There’s less chance of killing someone with a Stanley.”

Mandatory sentences are increasingly unpopular among judges and policymakers in the face of a wealth of research showing mandatory sentencing often do little to reduce crime.

There is also the question of their constitutionality, particularly in light of a recent Supreme Court decision limiting the use of mandatory sentences for possession of a firearm.

The State’s penalties for knife crime – a maximum of five years for possession – are broadly in line with others and significantly more severe than the UK’s maximum of four years, Australia’s two and France’s €15,000 fine.

Childhood trauma

Irish officials warn that the example offered by Scotland is not a panacea, since actions taken there took a long time to work and progress has since stalled, leading to a revision of many aspects of the policy.

Nevertheless, a holistic model, particularly focusing on childhood trauma, is what is needed in Ireland, says Máire O’Higgins, the assistant principal and chaplain of Larkin Community College in north inner-city Dublin.

“We need a joined-up system where a psychiatric nurse can go into a school and talk to a youngster who is traumatised and make sure that child is triaged into the proper services so that there is follow-through.

“At the moment things are siloed. The child is in his school, in his community and in his home. And in all these places the child is trying to make sense out of life. But because we don’t have joined up thinking the child keeps going down cul de sacs.”

This means a child is “more likely to pick up a knife” rather than explore more positive ways of dealing with problems, she says.

Like others on the front line of youth work, Ms O’Higgins does not see a lot of school children carrying knives. But she adds a cautionary note.

“If we don’t take care of the schooling system in areas of social disadvantage, things could spiral out of control.”