Surveillance and fear are not the answer to knife crime, argues Christian Phelps

The UK is worried about knife crime. Don’t respond with the fear-based approaches I know from the US.

knife crime classroom lockdown drill
A typical American classroom, like this one, becomes a very different place for active shooter drills and school lockdowns. Photo from NeONBRAND.

The school principal’s voice came on the intercom. He told all staff and students to move into a lockdown: close the blinds, turn off the lights and sit silently in an inconspicuous corner of the room.

Students, aged 8-11, knew what to do. They had practised active shooter drills. Staff roamed the hallways to check that every door was locked.

This happened at the school I worked at in the US last year. After a few minutes, we were told to resume our day as normal: an armed man had been in the neighbourhood but was ultimately deemed not a threat to the school.

Some of the children looked distressed. The classroom teacher and I made eye contact, reminding ourselves to appear calm. Due to the prevalence of gun violence in American society and media, we were used to the procedures, but we lived in a culture of fear.

Here in the UK, knife violence is all over the media. It makes sense to worry about the problem. In recent months, rates of blade-wielding offenses have been on the rise, and the plentiful reports of these crimes are what I’d call a national frenzy.

As an American, I’m no stranger to plagues of violence that come and go in the news. They spark virulent national debates on a range of political issues and tend to increase security measures throughout society. Many US schools now have their students pass through metal detectors each morning.

stop and frisk knife crime protest
Activists in New York City protested the use of stop-and-frisk in 2013, following the deaths of two unarmed black teenagers in Brooklyn. Photo from Daniel Arauz.

The UK has a choice to make. The frenzy over knife crime could easily become an excuse to surveil black communities, spark fear in children and take on one-dimensional efforts. But surveillance and fear are never the solution. Instead of scare tactics and punishment, it’s time to invest in the children and communities that need support.

The South Wales Police acknowledges that an issue as complex and consequential as knife crime requires a multi-faceted solution. “We continually work with partner organisations such as Public Health Wales and education authorities to tackle these issues,” said Superintendent Wendy Gunney, who leads knife crime efforts.

However, Gunney also referred to a measure the police do take: “In the 11 months between April 2018 and February 2019, more than 9,500 stop searches—an intelligence-led tactic we use to tackle this important issue—have been carried out,” she said.

Stop-and-search language will sound eerily familiar to those who follow US news: a controversial “stop-and-frisk” operation in New York City was declared unconstitutional for arbitrarily targeting black men in low-income neighbourhoods. Donald Trump has been a vehement supporter of stop-and-frisk for years.

Officers have the legal right to stop and search people in England and Wales for a wide range of suspicions. But on some level, this practice seems like a call for racial profiling: recent reports have found that black people are nine times more likely than white people to be stopped.

Most importantly, research has found that stop-and-search procedures do not reduce knife crime.

The UK is at risk of instilling a culture of fear among certain communities that reflects the one I saw in American schools. It is clear that while gun crime continues in the US, children at schools will consider fear normal. Not only will they fear the possibility of an attack, but also the consequences of not doing things right.

Many American schools, like the one I attended from age 14-18, have a permanent police officer in the building. Since guns are instilled in US civilian life, police officers are armed, too. Debates continue to rage over whether schools should have permanent officers.

I recently wrote a report on the safety and violence prevention measures in Cardiff schools. It’s worth noting that, as of now, “no schools in Cardiff have a permanent police presence,” according to South Wales Police Communications Officer Anna Hammond. Let’s keep it that way.

CCTV School Security
By some measures, children are the most surveilled population in the UK. Photo from Scott Webb.

Ninety per cent of UK schools have CCTV cameras to keep tabs on everyone, including pupils. Here in the Cardiff area, the numbers are staggering, with some schools operating one camera for every five students.

I’m sure the goals here are noble. Children, after all, need and deserve our protection. But if overall policing tactics in both the UK and the US are any indication, heavy surveillance could lead to racial profiling and antagonising children of colour.

What if, instead of watching children for “suspicious” activity, we offered them a sense of community and self-determination? The BBC reported in 2017 that youth support groups in Wales were facing severe financial distress and struggling to stay open, leaving many students without organised activities after school. If our society is committed to reducing violent behaviour, the answer—as always—starts with children.

While young, black men make up an increasing percentage of knife violence victims in the UK, the answer is not to target black communities by vilifying adults or surveilling children. Youth in our communities need support. They don’t need more punitive forces watching over their every action—and they certainly don’t need more weapons around. Take it from an American: racial profiling and a culture of fear do far more harm than good.