Britain Cracks Down on Knives After 11th Teen Is Slain in London

Tsehainesh Medhani, left, grieves with other family members for her 15-year-old daughter, Arsema Dawit, who died in a knife attack this week.
Tsehainesh Medhani, left, grieves with other family members for her 15-year-old daughter, Arsema Dawit, who died in a knife attack this week. (By Stefan Rousseau -- Associated Press)
By Kevin Sullivan and Jill Colvin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 6, 2008

LONDON, June 5 -- Leila Shire stood outside her central London apartment block, where a 15-year-old girl was stabbed to death this week, the 11th teenager killed with a knife in London this year.

"A lot of people are carrying" knives, said Shire, 24, a family friend of Arsema Dawit, who police say was the unarmed victim of a 21-year-old man charged with stabbing her repeatedly in an elevator.

"A lot of people think that it's better to be safe than sorry, and the only way they can be safe is maybe if I carry something, you know," Shire said. "It's that kind of mentality that's making more crimes."

Knife crime among young people has sparked a widespread debate in recent weeks in Britain, where police say they have seen "a worrying trend" toward more severe knife attacks involving younger attackers and victims.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Thursday announced a crackdown on teenagers carrying knives, saying that those as young as 16 will be prosecuted for knife possession on the first offense. Previously, anyone younger than 18 generally received only a warning.

"Young people need to understand that carrying knives doesn't protect you, it does the opposite -- it increases the danger for all of us, destroys young lives and ruins families," Brown said after meeting with top police and government officials at his 10 Downing Street office. "Recent tragic events have reminded us of that."

In a country where almost all guns are illegal, police say knives are the most popular weapons carried by youths in major cities from London to Glasgow. A police stop-and-search campaign in London last month found that about 5 percent of the 4,200 youths randomly checked were carrying knives.

While overall knife crime has decreased 16 percent from last year, police say, the average age of attackers and victims has shifted from the late teens or early 20s to the early to mid-teens.

Of the 16 teenage homicide victims in London so far this year, police said, two were shot, three were beaten and 11 were stabbed. Of the 26 teenagers slain in London last year, 16 cases involved knives.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, the government official in charge of public security, said the government has also doubled the maximum sentence for knife possession to four years. And she said the government plans to spend about $6 million on an advertising campaign to steer young people away from knives.

Officials said children under 16 who are caught with knives would continue to receive a police warning, but would also be referred to an educational program highlighting the dangers of carrying knives. Those caught a second time would likely be prosecuted, officials said.

"There is no evidence to suggest that there has been an explosion of knife-carrying among kids," said Enver Solomon, deputy director of the Center for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College in London.

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