We were recently commissioned to provide our advanced Edged Weapon Protection training course to a team of Community Safety officers at a local authority.
This team works in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and primarily serve as street-based contact professionals who are the eyes and ears of the community in terms of anti-social behaviour and youth crime. Their job is to develop relationships with the young people and residents of those neighbourhoods and then work with them to create safe and secure environments where people can live without fear of crime. They spend a lot of time talking to children and young people who are ‘out and about’ in the neighbourhoods, possibly up to no good, possibly just not wanting to go home.
The service identified a risk of knife crime, and specifically the risk that a knife might be presented and/or used during one of their conversations with the young people in their areas. They are right to be concerned.
Just in the recent past, we have had a teacher murdered in her classroom, a supply teacher stabbed at school in a row over a mobile phone and the shocking killing of a teenager in a school in Aberdeen.
BLADES AND KNIVES IN NUMBERS
In 2014, there were 11 teenagers murdered with an edged weapon in London alone. In London in 2015, there have been 18 young people killed with knives so far (November). The ONS has revealed that knife crime assaults in England and Wales is up 13% and there is a 10% rise in knife possession offences (as of July 2015). Importantly, robberies at knifepoint are falling. Murder rates are static, but more on that later.
- A YJB survey carried out from 1999-2005 showed that 32 percent of children aged 11 to 16 said they had carried a knife in the last 12 months.
- A MORI analysis in 2005 showed “a notable increase in knife carrying among school children in recent years”.
- A 2004 OCJS survey found that 4 percent of young people said they had carried a knife of some sort in the last 12 months ‘for protection, for use in crimes or in case they got in a fight’.
- Males are more likely to carry than females. Excluded children three times more likely to be carrying a knife than children in school.
- 16-17 year olds more commonly carrying than other age groups.
- Of those who carried a knife, one in ten carried a kitchen knife, with one in three carrying a flick knife.
- Most carry only rarely. Half carry ‘once or twice’ in the last 12 months. About 16 percent carry a knife frequently.
WHY DO YOUNG PEOPLE CARRY BLADES?
A report commissioned by the Bridge House Trust, Fear and Fashion, which sought the views of practitioners working with young people, concluded that fear of crime, experience – direct or otherwise – of victimisation and the desire for status in an unequal society are the chief motivations for carrying a knife
‘‘Fear and victimisation play the most significant role in a young person’s decision to carry a knife or weapon.
The possession of a knife or other weapon can also be a means of acquiring status. Children who experience failure at school or other kinds of social exclusion could be looking for status by carrying and brandishing a knife.
There is clearly a sense that this is an unequal society…and there is a feeling that you achieve status not by getting a degree or by qualifications but by having a knife. The status associated with the possession of a knife has a ripple effect and creates a fashion that other children might want to follow.’
We know from research that young men of teenage years are the most likely individuals to carry a knife or blade.
Young teenage males, especially in groups, are extremely sensitive to their sense of status, their perceived place in the hierarchy of relationships around them. Some of them are vulnerable to suffering the catastrophic loss of esteem and regard from their peers in an instant, if they “lose face” or “back-down”. They live from day to day by constantly protecting their street cred, their reputation and thus their status. Sometimes the results of this teenage status-protecting drive are tragic, as in the case of Euan Craig who was killed in a classroom attack in 2012.
Writers like David Rock (with his evidence-based SCARF model of behavioural influencers) and Rory Miller (with his insightful Monkey Dance analysis of violence dynamics) have all pointed to STATUS as being a key driver of human behaviour generally. The effect of status is magnified in the life of the young teenage male.
Faced with the pressures of never losing face, never backing down and protecting a sense of status and self-efficacy at all costs…a blade in the pocket must be attractive indeed.
But what does all this mean when we are trying to protect people from knife assaults?
AN ENVIRONMENT OF “CRIME AND PUNISHMENT” ?
In my school of 850 boys in a suburban setting in Ireland, the all-male teaching staff ruled with iron fists and sharp words. All it took was a moment’s inattention and the system of ‘Crime and Punishment’ came crashing down on top of you:
- Step 1) Instantaneous cutting remark: mere words, but designed with barbs and hooks to trigger brutal self-doubt
- Step 2) Crushing levels of punishment exercises (lines…remember those? hours sat at the kitchen table writing “I will not………”)
- Step 3) Coup de Grace: sarcastic comment at level 11 to deter your peers from similar behaviour
It worked, to a large extent. My school was relatively orderly and I went on to go to university, but that’s not the point.
Here’s the thing: I don’t recall any single one of those teachers in a positive way. They managed to make us all feel small enough that I doubt any of my peers remembers them as big people. There is still resentment of how we were treated by some of them.
Why is this relevant?
My friend and colleague, Gary Klugiewicz, who is a conflict communications and verbalisation skills expert at Vistelar, talks about how the old phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is completely wrong. Instead, he suggests that:
“Words can injure more deeply and leave wounds that fester longer.”
PRIMARY PREVENTION: SHOWING PEOPLE RESPECT
We can all remember people who have said particularly hurtful things to us – things that made us feel small, feel inadequate, which re-inforced the power imbalance inherent in ‘crime and punishment’ environments.
When you are the ‘victim’ of such treatment, then feelings naturally arise…revenge, retaliation, retribution, making things right or re-gaining face. Rory Miller in his model of violence dynamics calls this the ‘Status Seeking Display” which aims to build-up or re-build a reputation in jeopardy.
My point is this: when I am asked to present a course about edged weapon protection for a group of staff whose client-group is teenagers on the streets or in our schools, possibly the most important piece of advice is this:
“Be mindful that the young people you are working with on the streets are especially sensitive to issues of status, respect and face, both within your relationship with them, and in front of their peers. The best way to ensure you don’t end up on the tip of a blade is to make sure it is perfectly clear that you are SHOWING THEM RESPECT”
The most dangerous scenario I can predict with a team of contact professionals who work on the streets with children and young people -considering what we know about how many of them carry knives and the reasons why – is when a young person leaves an interaction with the team believing that they have been disrespected.
Revenge fantasies abound in popular culture. Think of an action movie where there is no revenge element. Go ahead! It might take you a moment or two longer than you first thought… Some of our favourtie action heroes and super heroes are big into revenge – good modelling huh!
The disrespect-revenge pathway for an incident like this could be:
- YP feels disrespected during an interaction with the team
- YP fosters resentment in the minutes, hours, days afterwards
- YP thinks about how to get revenge, retaliation or retribution
- …many other factors combine in a perfect-storm of bad decisions…
- YP puts a knife in their jacket and commits to using it
- YP has another interaction with the team, triggering over-reaction
- YP suffers catastrophic loss of all self-control and
- YP uses knife in an act of violence against the team
It all starts with the perception of being shown respect, or not. So, the first question about how to protect a team from knife assaults becomes this:
“How can we ensure that the young people we interact with are treated with dignity and are shown respect at all times, even when we are carrying out enforcement activities with them on the streets?”
Now, before we go flying off in the sunset, carrying fluffy bunnies under our arms and searching for rainbow-unicorns…let’s keep this real!
We know that community safety and enforcement means that difficult conversations need to be had and that people need to hear things they don’t want to hear or be persuaded to do things they’d rather not do! This is a given.
The point is that we need to be confident that our people are carrying the right values and tactics out onto the streets which foster a non-violent environment out there. The safest way to do this is to have a consistent standard for our interactions with people, based on excellent verbalisation skills and communication strategies.
Even when we are writing people up for violations or presenting them with the consequences of their anti-social behaviour, we need to do it in such a way that they believe they have been treated fairly, according to procedure, with empathy and were at all times allowed their dignity and that the person dealing with them was respectful. All this, even as we enforce the rules!
Again, Gary Klugiewicz points to the concept of ‘procedural justice’ as a waypoint towards this goal:
“Procedural Justice, simply stated, states that how a person feels they were treated in a certain incident or interaction has more to do with how they view the event than the final outcome of the event.”
Procedural Justice encompasses whether a person believes that a law is fair, that the enforcement services enforce it fairly and, crucially, whether a person feels that an officer carries out the enforcement in a way that allows the person to retain their dignity and treats the person with respect.
Procedural justice (sometimes called Procedural Fairness) is an issue of perception, which is decided by how the people feel about the way the enforcing officer interacts with them. The way in which the officer interacts with the people involved will have a great impact on whether the people believe that there was ‘procedural justice’ and hence legitimacy to the interaction.
Community Safety teams who are worried about their risk from knife crime or knife assaults should examine the quality of their interactions and the quality of their relationships first, as a preliminary step towards assessing their training or equipment needs.
To read Part Two of this article, please visit the blog post here: https://www.dynamis.training/community-safety-and-the-threat-of-knife-crime-part-2/
Gerard O’Dea is a conflict management, personal safety and physical interventions training consultant. He is the training director for Dynamis, a specialist provider of personal safety and violence management programmes and the European Adviser for ‘Verbal Defense and Influence’, a global programme which addresses the spectrum of human conflict. www.dynamis.training