After another violent murder in London, this is what needs to be done | Temi Mwale

The youth murder rate in the capital is rising alarmingly. A public health approach with a community-based strategy needs to be put in place

In the early hours of Saturday morning, another young person was murdered in London. Twenty-year-old Kwasi Anim-Boadu was stabbed to death in Finsbury Park. This year alone, we have seen an alarming increase in youth murders. Stabbings in London are at their highest in six years and a shocking amount of children have been shot to death. While there is naturally a lot of panic about what is fuelling this surge in brutality, serious youth violence is not new: the lack of commitment to address this issue dates back two decades at least.

A few weeks ago, it was announced that for the first time, the murder rate in London was higher than that in New York. While this provides a damning account of the significance of rising violence in the city, it also sheds light on the fact that violence has been decreasing in New York. Over the past few months, I have been visiting cities around the world to learn about the interventions being used to reduce this violence. This research has taken me to Glasgow, Rio de Janeiro, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as New York.

In New York, I learned about the crisis management system that was embedded at city level in 2011. This approach includes strategies from the Chicago-based cure violence model, which uses violence interrupters who mediate conflicts and reduce retaliations. This work is carried out in addition to providing other social and legal services. The system was designed as a comprehensive response to violence and provides wraparound support services, including in mental health, job readiness and legal advocacy for participants and their families, as well as conflict mediation, legal education and health services for the community at large.

Recently, there has been a lot of focus on an initiative closer to home – the violence reduction unit (VRU) in Glasgow. According to its statistics, murder rates fell by 47% between 2007-08 and 2016-17. Of particular significance is the fact that no one under the age of 20 was killed with a sharp instrument in 2016-17. When I visited the VRU and observed some of its initiatives, I did not think the work being carried out there was much different to what was already happening in London. However, the VRU has the cross-party political will to address violence as a public health issue and, more importantly, government funding to do so over the long term.

The VRU was formed by Strathclyde police, which is the only force in the world to have adopted a public health approach to violence. However, the relationship between this force and its community is not comparable to that of the Metropolitan police. For the Met to adopt such a strategy, it would have to address its historical failures and how they continue today.

There are intergenerational issues between the Met and London’s black community. Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder and it has been almost two decades since the Macpherson report acknowledged that the Metropolitan police are institutionally racist. Unfortunately, this is still true today. There has been a lack of accountability for those historical failures, which has created a lack of trust and ultimately a lack of legitimacy in the eyes of many young black people.

The only way to radically reduce violence over the next few years is to invest in a long-term approach. However, it can be tempting to only offer short-term police suppression and enforcement tactics in times of increased tension. Indeed, this is the exact approach that London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has advocated. Rather than increasing it, we must rethink our reliance on stop and search as the only method of addressing violence after a youth murder. I find it hard to accept that in the past 18 years, we have still not designed a structured process for dealing with the aftermath of a youth killing. There are immediate actions that can be taken to address the impact that the rise in violence has had on communities in this city. We need to create and immediately implement a youth violence crisis strategy. This short-term plan will provide the necessary actions to be taken in the immediate aftermath of a killing of a young person.

We need emergency services that aid victims’ friends and families in processing their loss and bereavement. Emotional support services should be delivered by community-based organisations that already have personal relationships with young people affected by violence. We should start by coordinating this for all those affected by the deaths of young people this year. Every young person who has been a victim of serious violence, such as stabbing, in the past 12 months requires immediate access to counselling and other mental health services, as well as community-based emotional support. Any young person who has witnessed the murder of their friend also requires access to the same services.

We need to provide emergency training for community-based grassroots organisations that work with these young people every day so they have the tools to deal with a mental health crisis. These organisations need to know how to best support those who experience paranoia, anxiety, trauma and depression, and help them develop coping skills. We must also ensure that our young people have the skills to save lives when they are with someone in a life-threatening position. Therefore, we need to increase emergency first-aid training for young people, particularly those aged 14-21, in responding to stab and gunshot wounds.

In London, it is clear that young black boys are disproportionately affected by this violence. There is a range of complex intersecting factors that create this reality. However, we need to engage with it in a meaningful way. This entails providing specialist, culturally competent support services to this group, enabling them to come to terms with the impact of violence on their lives.

I am not suggesting that these ideas are not long-term strategies. But I do believe they can be coordinated on a small scale immediately, and that they will have a significant impact in addressing violence right now. Many will read this and think these solutions appear ambitious, if not unrealistic. However, if the mayor’s office and Home Office can find millions for their “London needs you alive” and “Knife free” campaigns, surely we can make resources available for work that will actually improve the lives of young people affected by violence in a meaningful way.

• Temi Mwale is the founding director of The 4Front Project, a youth-led social enterprise to empower young people and communities to live free from violence


Temi Mwale

The GuardianTramp

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