Greenwich borough’s top policeman has appealed for communities’ help in dealing with knife crime – including helping officers look for weapons hidden in bushes.
Metropolitan Police Commander Simon Dobinson, who controls the police service in Greenwich, Lewisham and Bexley, told a Greenwich Council-convened community meeting held in Woolwich on Tuesday that the public needed to be more active in helping police deal with knife incidents.
The meeting, at the Woolwich Centre Library, was convened by new leader Danny Thorpe after five young men were stabbed in just over a month, reflecting a London-wide surge in violent crime following police cuts.
Thorpe acknowledged the council and others could do a lot more and the meeting was only intended as a start. But participants complained the meeting had been poorly promoted. One man pointed out only eight young people had showed up, while a woman said: “If I wasn’t on the Labour Party executive, I wouldn’t know about this event.”
Commander Dobinson said the problem needed solutions that involved more than just the police – but the force was hampered by a lack of intelligence on the ground.
He called for help from the community. “We need to get better at active citizenship – something that’s existed since we’ve had Neighbourhood Watch.
“One of my frustrations is when I have three or four cops rooting around bushes looking for knives. We look for knives and recover them. But these are your communities – I’d rather see one police officer co-ordinating members of that community in looking for those knives. Because anyone can go in a bush and then find a knife.
“That’s then three officers released from that to do activities for which they can use their training and skills.”
Cmdr Dobinson said the police were not the only solution to the knife crime: “We will not police our way out of this problem in the same way we will not police our way out of domestic abuse.
“We know that by the time someone comes to report a domestic abuse incident, they will have suffered it anything from 15 to 20 or 30 times by the time it gets to us – does that solve the problem? We have a pivotal role to play but we are only part of the solution.
He added: “If someone goes out and stabs someone, more than one person will know about it. Yet we routinely struggle to find out what’s happened. Even from people who have been stabbed. Either that’s a huge lack of trust in the police or a culture of people not wanting to tell or wanting to take retribution into their own hands.
“The problem is, we’re missing a trick in not having that information or intelligence.”
Community safety cabinet member Jackie Smith, who said she feared the issue could take “a generation” to solve, used the meeting to launch a voluntary scheme where retailers can agree to restrict the sale and visibility of knives in their stores.
“We know there are retailers with knives on display where they are not just purchased by young people, but are stolen, and a lot of those end up being used against other young people,” she said.
“We’re here tonight to pool our resources and have an honest conversation,” Thorpe said.
“This is a hugely important meeting,” Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook said. “I think we need many, many more meetings of this kind in all the different parts of my constituency or the borough.
“Any solution must start with the young people who are living with this on a daily basis. It can’t just be a discussion for councillors, MPs or academics.”
Pennycook said he feared things could get worse with summer approaching and the “hype in the air about these incidents – people are more likely to carry weapons”.
One speaker criticised the council’s youth service – which is run by Charlton Athletic Community Trust – claiming it neglected some parts of the community and called for it to be brought back in-house.
Pennycook said that youth services across London had been “decimated” by cuts and “that was bound to have an impact”. “We continually raise the problem in Parliament,” he said.
“But I’d caution against seeing it as a panacea – it’s a complex issue, the last surge in youth crime was in 2008/9 when lots of the youth service provision was still in place. There’s not a quick and easy answer and some of it is going to take many, many years.”
One participant pointed out that there “very few young black men here” – and counted just eight young people in the audience, while others said the knife crime involving older people and domestic violence should not be neglected.
Smith, who is setting up a “quick and dirty” internal task force within the council to identify issues that can be taken forward, acknowledged that “the two missing bits from all the work we do are young people and their parents – but I think that’s what the task force will identify, and we’ll have to put plans in place to fill these gaps”.
Thorpe said: “This is day one… I can’t do anything about the past but we can do things in the future. Meetings in themselves don’t solve a problem, but hopefully this is a start of a network of conversations.”
Pennycook added: “We all need to solve this together, so it can’t be a problem just for the black community – but without those young people or people from that community in the room, leading the discussion, it’s going to remain a sterile one.”
One woman said she had set up her own organisation, Mothers Against Gangs And Knife Crime, which had held a march from the O2 arena to Woolwich to protest against knife crime, but despite being invited, nobody from the council had turned up. Thorpe said: “You need to invite politicians and we’ll make a call on what resources we have and whether we can go – I’m happy to talk to you about that.”
One speaker called for a policing board to be set up to work with officers in combating violent crime, similar to one set up in Hackney, which has taken a ‘public health’ approach to the issue.
There were also calls for greater recognition of bodies like the Greenwich Young People’s Council – a council-backed body set up to deal with young people’s concerns, and where Danny Thorpe first cut his political teeth. Gilles Cabon of Greenwich Inclusion Project told the meeting that many young people simply hadn’t heard of the group.
Thorpe responded: “A quarter of the borough’s population are under the age of 18, and if I look around the room, clearly it’s not representative. Clearly I’ve got a job on my hands to make sure we’re reaching out and delivering.”
You’ll notice the video, which shows most of the statements from the panel, does not show contributions from the floor – this was a decision taken to protect the identity of participants and to enable them to speak without having a phone in their face.
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