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London’s 2021 murders examined: key figures in the UK capital’s homicides

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In 2021, Greater London experienced a record high in teenage homicides, predominantly due to knife and gun crimes, with about 30 male teenagers aged 14 to 19 becoming victims. This surge in violence, despite COVID-19 lockdowns, suggests that restrictions did not significantly dampen street violence. Knives were the primary weapon used in 74.4% of all homicides, while gun-related homicides accounted for 8.3%. This report highlights the steady increase in knife-related murders over the past decade and a marginal rise in total homicides from 131 in 2020 to 133 in 2021. The most affected demographics were male teenagers, with communities of color and impoverished areas bearing the brunt. Newham, characterized by high poverty and child poverty rates, emerged as a critical area for these homicides. This report also reviews UK’s knife possession laws and police efforts in weapon seizures, underscoring the diverse range of firearms used in crimes. The findings point towards the need for comprehensive research and policy intervention to understand and mitigate the socio-economic and cultural factors driving this upsurge in youth-related violent crimes in London.

INTRODUCTION

In 2021, London experienced 133 reported homicides. Notably, this included a grim new record in teenage homicides, largely attributed to knife and gun violence. Approximately 30 male teenagers aged 14 to 19 lost their lives, exceeding the previous record of 29 in 2008[1]. Most of the young victims were stabbed to death. In London, 74.4% of all homicides were caused by knives or sharp implements in 2021, a 15.6% increase from 2020.

Perhaps a testimony to the UK’s strong gun control laws, just 8.3% of homicides in 2021 were caused by gunshot wounds – proportionally down from the 11.4% witnessed in 2020. Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 lockdown played a role in the decrease of overall homicides, but the restrictions on public life caused by the pandemic did not stop street violence entirely. If anything the lockdown may have delayed violence, rather than prevented it.

Figures from the Metropolitan Police show that the rate of annual homicides reached their peak in July 2020, with 19 murders occurring in one month alone. These figures coincide with the period that followed the easing of lockdown restrictions in May 2020[2]. This report aims to delve into the critical statistics underlying this alarming trend, with a particular emphasis on the increased number of teenage victims involved in knife and gun-related homicides.

METHODOLOGY

Our approach encompassed examining statistical trends of homicides, especially the surge in teenage homicides, to understand the underlying socio-economic factors and policy responses. It included an evaluation of knife possession laws and police efforts in weapon seizures. In turn, our findings have been organized into the following sections: key findings, method of killing, demographic trends, location, as well as legal and judicial response.

KEY FINDINGS

  • In 2021, Greater London saw a sharp increase in teenage homicides, mostly due to knife and gun crimes, resulting in around 30 male teenagers becoming victims.
  • Contrary to expectations, the pandemic’s lockdowns did not significantly curb street violence.
  • The proportion of knife-related murders in total homicides has been on a steady rise over the past decade.
  • The period post-lockdown in July 2020 experienced 19 murders, the highest in any single month, aligning with the lifting of restrictions in May 2020.
  • The capital recorded 152 homicides in 2019, which dropped to 131 in 2020, likely influenced by lockdown measures.
  • 2021 saw a marginal increase to 133 homicides.
  • Predominantly male teenagers were victims, with a significant impact on communities of color and impoverished areas
  • Newham had the highest number of homicides.
  • A review of the UK’s knife possession laws reveals efforts to mitigate the availability of knives for criminal use.
  • Operations like Sceptre show a proactive approach by the police in confiscating knives and other weapons, with specific numbers illustrating the scale of these initiatives.
  • 2020 saw significant efforts by the police in combating gun violence, with a record number of firearms seized.
  • The report details the types of firearms prevalent in London crimes, underscoring the diversity of weapons used in these offenses.

METHOD OF KILLING

Of the 133 victims killed in London in 2021 Knives or sharp instruments were involved in 74.4% of all cases:

  • This marks a 15.6% increase from 2020
  • A recent study in 2020 concluded that the majority of fatal knife offences were due to gang activity in London, with around 37% of all homicides gang-related[3].
  • Knives are commonly found in households due to their utility in cooking and chores.
  • Legal restrictions aim to limit knives for criminal use, including the possession of banned knives or weapons.
  • Operation Sceptre seized approximately 411 knives between April and May 2021 to reduce violent crimes in London [4].
  • A London Family Courtroom confiscated 5,000 knives in 2019-2020, including small knives and bladed instruments, setting a record [5].

Gun-related homicides constituted 8.3% in 2021:

  • This shows a decrease from 2020’s 11.4%.
  • The Police and Crime Committee released a report in 2017 on London’s gun crimes, stating that ‘little is known about the drivers of gun crime in the capital’[6]
  • A record-breaking 450 firearms were confiscated in London in 2020 as part of an operation to reduce violence [7].
  • According to the National Crime Agency, firearms remain relatively rare in the UK compared to other countries but pose a threat from organized crime groups and urban gangs.
  • The majority of firearms are either sold on the dark web or trafficked from central and eastern Europe before being distributed to gangs and criminals [8].

DEMOGRAPHIC TRENDS

Race of the Victims:

Of the victims killed in 2021 due to Knife-related injuries:

  • 45% were White;
  • 12% were Asian;
  • 31% were Black;
  • 9% were Other;
  • 12% were Unknown/Not recorded;

Of the victims killed in 2021 due to Gun-related injuries:

  • 18% were White;
  • 9% were Asian;
  • 64% were Black;
  • 9% were Other;
  • 18% were Unknown/Not recorded;

Gender of the victims:

  • 88% of victims killed by stab wounds were male;
  • 12% of victims killed by stab wounds were female;
  • 100% of victims killed by gunshot wounds were male;

The average age of the victims:

  • Of the victims killed by either knife or gun-related injuries in 2021, 30 were male teenagers aged 14 to 19.

In this regard, scholars suggest that hypermasculinity and machismo contribute to men’s weapon carrying and use, particularly knives, for navigating street life and asserting respect within communities [9][10]. This behavior is linked to living in violent settings, fear, identity, antisocial attitudes, and exposure to negative influences like gangs [11]. To address this, more research and engagement with young men in affected communities are needed to understand their perceptions of masculinity and its underlying causes.

Furthermore, knives are more prevalent than guns in domestic homicides, with a domestic abuse link seen in many London cases [12]. The pattern suggests knives in homes undermine the perception of safety, especially for women [13]. Data shows most domestic abuse knife victims are white, but overall, Black individuals and youths aged 13-19 are disproportionately homicide victims. Ethnic categorization is too broad; detailed analysis is needed to understand cultural nuances and the reasons behind youth homicides. Newham, despite its diversity, records high Black victim numbers, indicating a need for targeted research into the factors contributing to these trends.

Knife and gun crimes create a pervasive fear among individuals in areas with recurring violence. The peak age for carrying a knife in London is 15 [14]. Teens carry knives out of fear, for credibility, or with the intent to use them. Violence in neighborhoods instills a fear so intense that even a trip to the corner shop can be daunting due to gang presence. Older gangs historically confined violence within their ranks, whereas today’s younger gangs exhibit more indiscriminate violence [15]. This environment of fear drives teenagers to carry knives for protection, equating not carrying one with weakness [16]. As weapon carrying becomes normalized, so does violence, perpetuating a cycle of unchallenged violent behavior that passes down through generations. In Newham, this cycle affects everyone, restricting freedom and impacting family life [17].

LEGAL AND JUDICIAL RESPONSE

Current Armed Violence Research

2017-2021 London Knife Crime Strategy:

  • Included measures like playing classical music in fast food restaurants to create a calming environment [18].
  • The strategy focused on five key action points: targeting lawbreakers, offering ways out of crime, keeping weapons off the streets, protecting and educating young people, and community support against knife crime.
  • Emphasized the need for community involvement in discouraging and preventing knife carrying.
  • Highlighted the role of media and influencers in making online spaces safer for children.
  • Despite these efforts, knife and gun violence continued to rise.
  • British MP Sian Berry’s report shows significant cuts to youth services between 2011 and 2021, with around £36 million reduced from annual budgets, loss of 600 full-time youth worker jobs, and closure of over 130 youth centers [19].
  • Berry’s findings indicate gendered activities in youth centers and reduction in council budgets for youth services.
  • Significant cuts in police staffing, including 23,500 police staff jobs and 7,000 Police Community Support Officer roles since 2010 [20].
  • Ben Kinsella Trust CEO asserts knife crime as a decade-long societal issue, stressing the importance of youth workers in guiding young people away from knife crime [21].
  • The loss of funding and roles in police and youth services critically impacts efforts to reduce knife crime.

Successful interventions:

Successful interventions around knife and gun crimes have worked across New York and Glasgow[22]. The lessons learned from these case studies reveal the most important changes.

Suppression:

  • Implementing a long-term strategy and neighborhood policing in hotspots.
  • Focus on gathering intelligence and identifying key players in knife/gun crimes.

Community Engagement:

  • Cooperation between police forces, local government, communities, and academics.
  • The Violence Reduction Unit in Glasgow uses ‘navigators’ to engage with knife/gun crime victims in hospitals [23].
  • Organizing events focusing on expression and violence reduction.

Intervention and Education:

  • Partnerships between police and schools to provide intervention in primary schools and education on the effects of violence.
  • Scotland has a Mentors in Violence Prevention Programme that operates in schools, colleges and the military.
  • Since 2014, around 3,500 sessions on violence reduction have been delivered by trained mentors around issues of knife crime, bullying, domestic violence, gender norms, and harmful sexual behaviour.

Outreach:

  • Long-term programs with follow-up to support at-risk individuals.
  • The Violence Reduction Unit in Scotland has a 5-year violence reduction strategy.
  • Cure Violence in New York implements a no-time-limit strategy plan for continuous support.

Opportunities Provision:

  • Offering job training, education, and employment to youth in high-risk areas.
  • Glasgow’s violence reduction unit recruits teams providing support and training.

Offender Management:

  • Tailored support for offenders upon release from prison.
  • The British criminal justice system shows a 24.7% recidivism rate, and 57.5% for sentences under 12 months [24].

Cure Violence Approach:

  • Aims to stop the spread of violence using disease control methods [25].
  • Their approach has led to a 63% reduction in shootings in New York City and an 88% reduction in killings in Honduras.

Methods include:

  • Detecting and interrupting potentially violent conflicts.
  • Identifying and treating the highest risk individuals.
  • Changing social norms through community engagement.

London Police and Crime Plan 2021-2025:

  • The government allocated £130 million to address violent crimes, including weapon-related offenses [26].
  • Focus on interventions like increased patrols, weapon sweeps, and educational programs in schools.

Draft and Key Features:

  • Plan in drafting stage, set for completion by January 2022.
  • Incorporates England’s new Violence Reduction Unit [27].
  • Acknowledges recent events undermining trust in policing, emphasizing the importance of women and girls in violence reduction strategies.

Public Health Approach:

  • Adopts a public health approach to violence, similar to Cure Violence in the U.S. [28].
  • Emphasizes intervention, prevention, and community engagement.

Community Trust and Police Reforms:

  • Protests like Black Lives Matter highlighted the need for police reform and better community relations.
  • Trust-building between police and minorities is essential, with a focus on reducing discriminative practices in law enforcement [29][30][31].

Stop and Search:

  • It is important to note that multiple research reports have concluded that stop and search powers are rooted in racism and are not an effective solution to knife/gun crime[32].
  • A recent study found that in 2019/20, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people were 4.1 times more likely to be stop and searched than White people [33]
  • Others studies show Black individuals are 8.9 times more likely to be stopped by police, as observed by a white male who noted racial bias in police practices [34].
  • Increased stop and searches alone are insufficient, as they do not tackle the root causes of crime; weapons removed may reappear the next day [35].
  • Police often lack understanding of local community issues, which is vital for effective violence reduction.
  • To improve relations with BAME communities, police forces need to enhance diversity and address racism.
  • Reducing power imbalances seen in interactions, such as stop and searches, between white officers and young Black men is critical.
  • Officers should avoid stereotyping criminals and immerse themselves in communities to better grasp cultural differences and the daily experiences of young residents [36].

Gang Matrix Reforms:

  • The gang matrix, established post-2011 London Riots, identifies harmful gang members but faces criticism for adding individuals based on associations [37].
  • Criticized for discriminating against ethnic minorities, especially Black individuals.
  • Liberty, a human rights group, threatened legal action against the Met Police in February 2022, citing racial bias in the matrix [38].
  • 86.55% of individuals on the matrix are from Black, Asian, or Ethnic Minority backgrounds, with 79% being Black.
  • Post-legal threat, around 1000 Black men were removed from the matrix.
  • Mayor’s review found 38% listed on the matrix posed little to no harm.
  • New measures include annual reviews, reappraisal of those listed as ‘zero harm’, and a board focusing on equality and human rights.
  • Efforts for better data capture, data protection, improved transparency, and annual reports to a supervisory group [39].

Cultural Representation and Policing:

  • Research links London’s knife and gun crime to gang violence, poverty, and predominantly Black communities [40].
  • Policy Exchange study claims a significant portion of homicides in 2018 and 2019 were related to drill music [41], echoed by media outlets [42][43].
  • Criticisms of the study highlight superficial analysis and stereotyping of young Black men.
  • Ilan’s 2020 study argues the link between drill music and violence is based on misconceptions and stereotypes [44].
  • Drill music is often a form of artistic expression; its criminalization perpetuates harmful stereotypes towards Black culture [45][46].
  • The debate around drill music reflects biases in police stop and search practices, perceived as discriminatory by ethnic minorities [47][48].

Social Media

  • Newer research has been looking at social media as a driving factor in the increased number of homicides.
  • Previous Met Police Chief, Cressida Dick, stated that social media makes it harder for people to cool down [49].
  • She stated that gangs may provoke rival gangs on social media platforms and can lead to a fight very quickly.
  • However, robust research with evidence has not been done to support this claim.

Police Misconduct:

  • The Independent Office for Police Misconduct (IOPS) released a report on February 1, 2022, revealing misconduct in the Met Police related to racism, sexism, and other issues [50].
  • The report found evidence of racist communications and mocking of the Black Lives Matter movement [51].
  • Evidence suggests a need for training in diversity and non-discriminatory behavior in police forces.
  • Continuous racist behaviors by police officers hinder community trust and engagement.
  • Dame Cressida Dick resigned as Chief of Metropolitan Police following the IOPS report, with some officers involved in the report being promoted or continuing to serve [52].
  • The Mayor of London expressed dissatisfaction with Dick’s response to the issues highlighted in the report [53].

At Action on Armed Violence, we believe that it is necessary to investigate the handling of homicides by the Met Police, specifically those relating to knife and gun crimes. We need to investigate whether there is a correlation between the handling of homicides, the ethnicity of the victims and the ethnicity of police officers.

LOCATIONS

Newham had the highest rate of homicides in London from 2011 to 2021, with notable poverty and child poverty rates of 37% and 50%, respectively[54]. Gang violence is prevalent, with The Guardian reporting up to 1,000 children at risk of gang involvement monthly, and about 200 gangs comprising 5,000 members in Newham [55][56]. Despite outdated indicators, Newham and Southwark are known for knife and gun crimes [57].

The top regions for firearm and knife offenses in England are London, the West Midlands, Yorkshire, the North West, and the North East, with London leading in both categories for the 2019-2020 period. Homicide statistics are scarce, but there were 133 murders in London and 25 in Yorkshire in 2021, while Manchester experienced a significant increase in knife crimes [58][59].

CONCLUSION

Overall, this report has highlighted significant figures concerning knife and gun-related homicides, with an emphasis on London, and identified critical research gaps that require attention. To comprehend the high rates of knife and gun crime-related homicides, it is vital to explore notions of masculinity within Black communities in London, particularly any associations between masculinity and violence or dominance. Investigating the motives of perpetrators through interviews could provide insights into the causes of ongoing violence and inform prevention strategies. Understanding the impact of knife and gun crimes on the families and communities affected is also crucial, as it may inform whether such crimes contribute to cycles of violence.

The relationship between police forces and the communities they serve is another area needing in-depth exploration, including how policy decisions, such as funding cuts to social works and community centers, affect violence, especially among youth. Additional research is needed to identify specific London areas where knife crime is prevalent, the relationship between identity and location or poverty, and the ethnicities of both medical professionals treating knife/gun wounds and their patients.

Further inquiries should also delve into a more nuanced classification of ethnicities beyond general racial categories, a clearer understanding of gang dynamics in the UK, and the dispelling of myths associating knife and gun crimes exclusively with Black individuals or certain genres of music like drill. Additionally, the influence of social media on violent crime rates and the serious allegations of racism within the Metropolitan Police require thorough investigation to address these systemic issues.

REFERENCES

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[2] Met Police Crime Dashboard; https://www.met.police.uk/sd/stats-and-data/met/crime-data-dashboard/

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[22] Violence Reduction Unit; http://www.svru.co.uk/ AND Cure Violence; https://cvg.org/

[23] Violence Reduction Unit; http://www.svru.co.uk/navigator/

[24] Ministry of Justice National Statistics; Proven reoffending statistics

[25] Cure Violence; https://cvg.org/what-we-do/

[26] £130.5 million to tackle serious violence, Home Office, 2021

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[46] GILROY, P. (1988), ‘Cruciality and the Frog’s Perspective: An agenda of difficulties for the black arts movement in Britain’, Third Text, 2(5): 33-44.

[47] Ilan, J. (2020). Digital Street Culture Decoded: Why Criminalizing Drill Music is Street Illiterate and Counterproductive: https://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/23519/1/.

[48] What Londoners tell us around knife crime and violence; 2019; MOPAC Evidence and Sight: https://www.london.gov.uk/moderngovmb/documents/s63353/Appendix%20B%20-%20MOPAC%20Surveys%20presentation.pdf  

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[51] Operation Hotton, IOPS, https://www.policeconduct.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Operation%20Hotton%20Learning%20report%20-%20January%202022.pdf

[52] Dame Cressida Dick: Met Police commissioner’s replacement faces stark challenges, Priti Patel warn; Sky News; https://news.sky.com/story/dame-cressida-dick-priti-patel-and-sadiq-khan-clash-over-met-police-chiefs-departure-12538819

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[54] Poverty rates by London Borough; Trust for London; https://www.trustforlondon.org.uk/data/poverty-borough/

[55] London Killings: It’s like a war zone. How did it come to this?’; The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/may/01/london-killings-its-like-a-war-zone-how-did-it-come-to-this

[56] Inside London’s gang hotspot; Sky News; https://news.sky.com/story/theres-no-end-to-this-because-the-police-dont-care-and-we-dont-care-inside-londons-gang-hotspot-12472251

[57] Gangs Dashboard; Mayor of London;

https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/mayors-office-policing-and-crime-mopac/data-and-statistics/crime%20/gangs-dashboard

[58] Yorkshire Post; https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/crime/homicide-rate-south-yorkshire-its-highest-more-decade-research-reveals-3079807

[59] Children Killing Childre; Manchester news; https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/children-killing-children-inside-greater-22653226