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London confronts a spate of murders, with most victims killed by knives

LONDON — One teenager was caught in the crossfire of a drive-by attack. Another was shot in the face. They died within 24 hours of each other.

A memorial in Hackney, East London for Israel Ogunsola, 18, who was stabbed to death on Wednesday.

A memorial in Hackney, East London for Israel Ogunsola, 18, who was stabbed to death on Wednesday.

LONDON — One teenager was caught in the crossfire of a drive-by attack. Another was shot in the face. They died within 24 hours of each other.

Two days later, another teenager and a burglary suspect were fatally stabbed and a man was beaten to death in what appeared to have been a late-night brawl outside a betting shop.

On Thursday (April 5), five teenagers were stabbed in an hour and a half before sunset, including a boy of 13.

All these attacks took place in London over the past week, part of an apparent spike in violence in the British capital. After a long period of steady declines in violent crime, the city has averaged in excess of three killings a week so far this year.

More than 50 people have been killed in London since the start of 2018. The total for all of 2017, a year when the city suffered multiple deadly terrorist attacks, was 116.

Criminologists have expressed caution about drawing conclusions from only a few months’ figures, but if the uptick continues, it will amount to London’s highest level of violence in more than a decade.

A year with 200 homicides, for a city of more than 8.5 million people, would be far from a shocking high in the United States. New York City, with a roughly comparable population size, had 292 murders last year, according to the 2018 Police Commissioner’s Report, and that was a record low. In Britain, however, the prospect has been enough to alarm politicians and command newspaper front pages.

Analysts say that the surge in violent crime has been driven by several factors, including rivalries between drug gangs, cuts to youth services and social programs, and even the ease with which teenagers can now taunt and provoke one another on social media.

“It is difficult to address the causes of violence without addressing important social questions about the choices facing young people in terms of opportunities,” said Mr Roger Grimshaw, the research director at the Center for Crime and Justice Studies in London.

Mr David Lammy, a lawmaker for the north London district of Tottenham, which has been hit hard by violent crime in recent weeks, said there was not one single cause for the surge, but that drug gangs were a major factor.

“What drives the gangs and the turf wars is an 11 billion pound cocaine drugs market,” he said in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program. Eleven billion pounds is about US$15.5 billion.

“Drugs are prolific,” Mr Lammy added. “They’re as prolific as ordering a pizza. You can get them on Snapchat, WhatsApp. That, in the end, is driving the turf war; and it’s driving the culture of violence.”

He suggested that the police had lost control of the drugs market, which he said was largely controlled by Eastern European gangs. Gangs increasingly use children and teenagers to carry drugs around the country, making them potential casualties in fighting between groups.

Most of the killings in London so far have been stabbings, most apparently carried out by young people. A majority of the victims were in their 20s or younger, and many have been black or from ethnic minorities.

Mr Grimshaw warned that sudden increases in crime could cause a type of “contagion” among communities. “If a sufficient number of people feel frightened, they can look on knife-carrying as a way to make themselves feel safe, but it actually makes them less safe,” he said.

Knife crime in Britain rose by 21 per cent last year, and stabbings in London were at their highest level in six years, according to figures released in September by the Office for National Statistics, which compiles an authoritative survey of crime in England and Wales.

A current government poster campaign in some parts of London promotes the virtues of “living knife free,” linking to a website with a “quick close” button for those ashamed or afraid to be seen viewing it.

This past week, the Metropolitan Police promised a new task force of specially selected, dedicated police officers to focus on “violent crime, weapon-enabled crime and serious criminality.”

“You will see us being even more proactive out on the streets,” the force’s leader, Commissioner Cressida Dick, said in a statement. “We will have a greater presence in the hot spots of violence and a focused effort, including intelligence-led stop-and-search and the use of specialists in covert tactics.”

Commissioner Dick told Sky News on Friday that 300 more officers would be deployed each day on the streets of London.

The increased use of stop-and-frisk tactics, reduced in London and elsewhere in Britain in recent years, has been a frequent demand of some Conservative lawmakers and other critics in the face of shocking crime reports.

But some community workers and politicians argue that would be counterproductive, damaging trust in the police in deprived areas without necessarily finding many weapons.

“Random stop-and-search has poisoned relationships between the police and the community,” Ms Diane Abbott, the home affairs spokeswoman of the opposition Labour Party, told the BBC. “In the end, we need the cooperation of the community to deal with the issues.”

Some experts say that increased police patrols are also unlikely to deter crime, although they may help to reassure communities.

The Labour mayor of London, Mr Sadiq Khan, has blamed central government cuts in the policing budget for the rise in crime; police budgets in England and Wales have been cut by an average of 20 per cent, accounting for inflation, since 2010.

“Since 2014, we have seen an increase in violent crime in London and across the country,” Mr Khan said in an interview with the Press Association news agency. “Since I first became mayor, I have been saying to the government that it’s not sustainable to make the level of cuts they have been making to London.”

Mr Steve O’Connell, the chairman of the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee, said that while the Metropolitan Police deserved better funding, it still had the resources to deal with the recent spate of violent crime.

“They are taking this very seriously, but it’s much more complicated that just arresting people,” he said in a phone interview. “We need to get to the root cause of why so many young men use knives to settle their differences and why they are willing to inflict serious damage on people.”

“Once we understand this,” he continued, “we need to make sure these people are taken off the street and put away for a long time.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

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