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

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.

According to government statistics, 6 to 7 percent of all violent crime and about a third of murders in Britain are knife-related, figures virtually unchanged over the past decade.

But the trend of increasingly young offenders committing increasingly violent acts with knives suggests a larger problem in society, particularly in inner-city areas, Solomon said.

"I don't think there are kids prowling the streets with knives looking to kill somebody," he said. "These kids are carrying knives for self-protection."

Solomon said the problem was rooted in factors such as poor educational achievement and a lack of social services for many children.

On Thursday, some youth workers said Brown's initiatives were insufficient. "If the answer was to lock up more young people, then we would have solved the problem years ago," David Chaytor of the youth advocacy group Rainer told BBC Radio.

Near the apartment block where this week's killing took place, several people interviewed said the death didn't fit the usual pattern. Arsema Dawit, an immigrant from Eritrea who turned 15 last week, was apparently killed in a premeditated attack. Arsema's family said the man charged with killing her had threatened and assaulted her five weeks ago.

Normally, residents said, those hurt by knives were carrying knives themselves. They said their neighborhood, near Waterloo train station, is a generally peaceful area that has become frightening in recent years.

"You feel it's not so fun anymore. You scared. You really scared," said Barwaqo Farah, 32, whose daughters, ages 7 and 8, attend school directly across the street from where the stabbing took place.

Darren Smith, 21, who lives in the Brixton section of London but was looking for work near Waterloo this week, said many people "carry knives whenever they go out . . . because sometimes they have a lot of problems on the road with other people."

Arsema's family met reporters Thursday outside their home. They have filed a complaint alleging that police did not properly follow up after the family complained about the alleged assault five weeks ago. Police have referred the complaint to a watchdog agency.

Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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