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Britain moves to curb rise in knife violence

In London alone, 85 people were fatally stabbed last year. The Labor government, under fire from Conservatives, puts forward a zero-tolerance policy.

January 05, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — Nabeer Bakurally's short life came to an end on a chilly, inky night in November, on a street in East London.

The 19-year-old was out late with a friend when a group of young men attacked them, possibly after some kind of dispute. There was a lethal glint of metal, and minutes later Bakurally lay bleeding on the sidewalk, stabbed in the heart.

His death added to a grim roll call of fatal knife attacks in Britain in 2008, possibly the worst such year on record. In a country where guns are strictly controlled and shootings are much rarer than in the United States, the surge in stabbings has propelled the issue of knife crime to the top of the public safety agenda.

Like Bakurally, many of the victims have been teenagers, including Robert Knox, an aspiring actor who had won a minor role as a student wizard in the film "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" due out this year. Knox, 18, died from multiple stab wounds in May after trying to protect his younger brother from an attacker outside a bar in southern England.

The Labor government is now talking of a zero-tolerance policy for anyone caught carrying a knife, a stance with which the opposition Conservatives agree. But that has not stopped the issue from becoming a political blame game featuring accusations of lying and replays of a popular public debate over whether British society is "broken."

Last week the Conservatives released statistics that they say show a record number of fatal stabbings in England and Wales last year -- five a week, on average, or a 30% increase since Labor came to power in 1997.

"It is quite shocking to think that these numbers are the highest since they started recording these sorts of incidents back in 1977," James Brokenshire, an opposition spokesman on public safety issues, told the British Broadcasting Corp. "It does paint this picture of knife crime having increased and the measures that the government has tried to introduce not being effective."

Among those measures is a special police operation against knife crime in 10 problem areas, including London, where more than 85 people were stabbed to death last year. It empowers police to conduct spot checks and monitor how easily minors can buy knives in shops, which is illegal here.

The government has called the crackdown a success and disputes the Conservatives' figures. But it was forced to make an embarrassing public apology last month after its own statistical watchdog criticized it for releasing misleading partial figures that officials had touted as proof of a drop in knife violence. The full statistics actually revealed a rise in some knife-related offenses.

Fed up with political squabbling, activists have organized demonstrations, including a large one in London in September. They also have mounted their own campaigns to pressure officials into action and prod communities into being more watchful of the kind of activity their youths engage in.

Gangs are increasingly a fixture in blighted urban areas, and gang warfare has scared more and more Britons into retreating behind locked doors and shuttered windows. The murder conviction of a teenager in Liverpool for the death of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, who was caught in gang crossfire, made headlines last month.

"These gangs need to be smashed," said Gary Trowsdale, a spokesman for the Damilola Taylor Trust, an anti-violence group set up in the memory of a boy who was stabbed to death in 2000, days before his 11th birthday, by two boys barely older than he. "We do have a problem in our inner cities, with poverty being rife and deprivation on a scale that American inner cities have seen for some time."

If there has been a breakdown of societal values, as many Britons believe, then the media may also have had a hand in it with such glorification of violence as in the Batman movie "The Dark Knight," Trowsdale said.

Actor Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker was an artistic tour de force, but "he spent 99% of his time on-screen holding a knife. We need to think about that," Trowsdale said.

"You're a 10-year-old watching Heath Ledger . . . You watch the way he uses that knife. Then you go on Sony PlayStation and play a game . . . where you're rewarded points for stabbing somebody. You go [out] on the streets and feel threatened. What are you going to do?"

Some youths now carry bladed weapons out of fear for their safety, without malevolent intent, but that needs to be discouraged because the knives can be turned on them, Trowsdale said.

The government agrees. It is calling for punishment for anyone caught with a knife. In a nod to the British affinity for publicly shaming offenders, the sentence could take the form of community service, such as clearing graffiti, during which violators would have to wear bright orange jackets stamped with the words "community payback."

"We're not going to have knives on our streets," Prime Minister Gordon Brown said recently. "We're going to protect our young people, and we're going to stop the knife crime that has caused so much damage, so much grief and so much anguish to so many families in this country."

Laborites hope that a clampdown on knife violence will help erase some of the Conservatives' lead in the opinion polls. The government must call a general election by the middle of next year.

But reducing violence of any kind could prove tough as Britain's economic gloom deepens. In the past, downturns in the economy have usually been accompanied by a rise in crime.

"We're worried," Trowsdale said. "We're going to be ever more vigilant. This is a time for everybody to think about the consequences of what this recession might bring."

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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