In recent days, many of us will have opened our newspapers, activated our Twitter accounts or watched the news to learn about daily knife related homicides and Incidents across England and Wales. Many of these killings and incidents appear to have taken place in the Metropolitan Police area, however it’s clear no part of either country is escaping these incidents.
As well as learning, sometimes in graphic detail, accounts of these incidents we have been exposed to pictures on social media of knives that have either been used, or taken from individuals searched or arrested by the police. Displaying these weapons appears to be a tactic used by the police to both warn of the dangers of knife carrying as well as attempting to alleviate fear within the communities involved.
The Guardian paper was recently ran a story which discussed that metal detectors were being considered by the police as a method to prevent this apparent epidemic of violence on our streets (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/may/03/london-schools-urged-install-metal-detectors-help-stop-knife-crime?CMP=share_btn_tw).
As a police officer for nearly 30 years I will continue to applaud any effort to prevent violence. Swift and visible justice is needed indeed it is something that the public rightly deserves, however I think it’s important that care needs to be taken when tackling the ‘wicked problem’ that is violence. When contemplating these responses, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the work of the American psychologist Robert Cialdini who, suggests that policy makers, the media and the police not only miss the power of social norms and influence but that they often use them in a way that could potentially make matters worse.
Cialdini argues that too often, in their haste to impress upon the public the gravity of a particular issue, policy makers would inadvertently reinforce the very behaviour they were trying to discourage. He uses knife crime as an example to highlight this and suggests that many responses to knife crime actually communicate to individuals that many others are carrying knives also, when actually most aren’t.
The media also, often make or amplify the ‘big mistake’ within their news articles. We humans, are naturally curious and the media plays into our natural interest in all things crime. Despite many national and world-wide reports that violence is falling it is the case that many of us continue to feel that crime is rising.
The pictures of the weapons I discuss above run a risk of communicating “look at the knives people are carrying, my one needs to be bigger”. The use of metal detectors in schools also communicates people are carrying weapons and may actually suggest to others they must carry to be safe.
So, what is the answer? Let me be clear I see a clear role for police to be deploying a range of tactics to prevent these horrific incidents but any long-term response needs to be wide and varied with a focus on the early years, climate and culture.
I have a friend who, in a previous life was Head Teacher in a school in the US state of Iowa. He often talks about the day that the shootings took place at the US school in Columbine. He was working in his school, many hundreds of miles from Columbine but like many others that day was fixed on the news pictures coming from the scene. Whilst watching the new broadcast he describes how the telephones in his school started ringing. The parents of the children at his school began phoning to make sure their kids were safe.
In the days and weeks after this incident schools across the US were faced with a decision. Many considered the deployment of metal detecting archways or hiring extra guards to patrol school corridors.
School are places of socialisation and learning. As a teacher dedicated to ensuring the best possible outcomes for his pupils my friend was concerned about the fear that this extra security would undoubtedly lead to. He took the brave decision to focus on the school climate and work to foster relationships that would support a school opposed to all forms of abuse. Shootings just like all forms of serious violence don’t just happen. Their roots are often in incidents such as: name calling, gossip, rumour and isolation. He was of the view that work done on these areas would help the creation of solid and positive relationships in the school. This he knew would help build a safe and supportive learning environment where pupils would both feel safe and importantly their learning would be supported.
“The clear majority of our young people are good, decent and law-abiding individuals. We simply need to create the space for conversations that allow them to actually see that”
For me, violence is a breakdown in a relationship. An answer surely is to focus on the building of relationships, healthy ones. Learning will not take place unless a person feels safe. People feel safe in healthy and positive relationships. American educationalist James Comer said, “no significant learning will take place without a significant relationship”. Whilst it’s important for staff to foster their relationships with pupils it’s vital that schools develop work to support the same between pupils.
In the search for positive outcomes It’s clear that policing and education share a common aim, to build healthy relationships. It’s important that in the face of these ongoing incidents any short-term responses quickly give way to work that centres on the building of heathy relationships. Partnerships are essential and again, must share an agenda around relationships. My thirty years as a police officer has shown me, get these right and magic will happen.
The conversations that will be enabled will provide focus on many other issues that we know contribute to violence. Masculinity, violent media and Domestic Violence all play their part in what we currently see in our news feeds. We need to create the space in our school time-tables to have these conversations. The knives I see on social media simply say, “mine is bigger than yours”. We need to enable conversations that say that this thinking isn’t shared by the majority and is killing people we care deeply about.
Facing up to these challenges may be daunting however we must simply do just that, face them. A different perspective is needed here. In the film Dead Poets Society, the character played by the late Robin Williams said
“I stand upon my desk to remind me that we must constantly look at things in a different way”
Some tough decisions will be needed in the coming weeks and months. Offenders need to be apprehended and brought to justice however we need to look at these issues differently. It’s time to stand on our desks.