The debate about the possession and use of knives on our streets particularly by teenagers has recently become much murkier with the recent tragic murder of Mr. Nyembo-Ya-Muteba, father of two young children, knifed to death in Hackney on 1st October 2006 after asking a group of youths to keep the noise down - because he had to get up early for work. This was followed by a well-meaning but misguided intervention by the Rev George Hargreaves, the local pastor who sought to pin the blame for the murder on cannabis-induced psychosis.

We can argue about the impact that cannabis - particularly the stronger varieties such as ‘skunk’ - has on our young people, and in turn about the wisdom of the recent downgrading of cannabis to a class C drug, and there is plenty of evidence to back up the Reverend’s claim of real damage to the younger mind, but we cannot (in the absence of any evidence) blame Mr. Nyembo-Ya-Muteba’s tragic murder on cannabis. We only know one thing for sure in this sorry affair and that is that this poor chap was murdered with a knife, not by the effects of cannabis.

The real questions that need asking are –

Do we really think that these teenagers would not have been carrying knives if they weren’t high on cannabis; or that they committed murder when they otherwise would not have? We can only guess, but we do know that because teenagers are, in reality, permitted to get away with carrying these deadly weapons without fear of being challenged by the police - that they may be destined to use them.

In this instance, despite the fact that the residents of the Holly Street Estate constantly complained to the police about feral teenagers breaking into the estate and causing a nuisance, they felt unable to bother to respond. This, I’m afraid, resulted in the death of Mr. Nyembo-Ya-Muteba. These are the facts, not guess-work about whether cannabis may or may not exacerbate a violent disposition in certain individuals.

How is it that this is a pattern repeating itself up and down the country?

There are a number of factors at work. The first culprit is the police perception that these problems are so intractable that they cannot be dealt with. The police now seem to think that the real (or imaginary) obstacles placed in their way are stopping them preventing crime and catching criminals. I have spoken to a number of police officers who now believe (erroneously) that they are not empowered to stop and search under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 unless there is a criminal act in progress. This is clearly rubbish as the Police have clear powers under this Act and indeed the powers of stop and search were expanded from the 1994 Act. So where does this misinformation come from? Obviously people do not join the police force with the idea of doing nothing about criminals so this culture of powerlessness must be handed down from senior officers and in turn the CPS who are merely reacting to the prevailing political climate.

Next is the practical issue of the amount of red tape and unnecessary paperwork piled high on the police by this Government. This clearly acts as disincentive to the police doing there job. If it is necessary to fill out a two-page form merely to ask someone who they are, what they are doing, or what they may have in their pockets, why on earth bother if it’s too much hassle? These forms weren’t necessary in the past and I don’t know why they should be now.

Then there is the thorny issue of the Human Rights Act which we are told again and again is an impediment. The criminal’s standard refrain now is “I know my rights” - and these extend to “I’ll do what the hell I like”. Interestingly though, the police’s concern for human rights only seems to extend to people who do not give a monkey’s about anyone else’s. It would be nice if this concern had spread to the law-abiding amongst us. It was only the other day that Derbyshire police thought that they would visit a grandmother late at night, search her house, arrest her, take her down to the police station, fingerprint, photograph, DNA sample her and then lock her up - all this whilst leaving a distraught disabled son at home. What do you imagine she could have done? I bet you think it had to be serious... sorry you are quite wrong. She had (allegedly) failed to return next doors’ football that had landed on her property! She was arrested despite no football being found and apparently the police had full powers to search her property - without a search warrant - because she was ‘under caution’. So it seems police have plenty of powers at their disposal, apparently just none that can deal with real criminals.

Next we have the ASBO. This is at the centre of the Government’s attack on crime and anti-social behaviour but it is a deeply flawed policy. By placing responsibility for crime prevention on the public and other social agencies this provides a fantastic get-out clause for the police as it conveniently allows them to ignore most so-called ‘low level’ crime. We now even have talk of allowing ‘authority figures’ dishing out summary justice on our streets with fixed penalty fines for serious offences such a burglary. Soon all we will be left with for the police to do is investigate murder and terrorism, which presumably will remain serious enough not to be dealt with by a fixed penalty fine!? This ad hoc approach is madness as it is an admission of failure and takes real crimes out of the criminal justice system altogether. Because so-called minor crime is not effectively dealt with this in turn leads to people like Mr. Nyembo-Ya-Muteba, Damilola Taylor, Kiyan Prince etc. dying on our streets. The one common thread with these murders is that we can be sure that the perpetrators were not properly dealt with by the criminal justice system, and by the time they had killed the believed that they were untouchable.

We are told there is broad range of reasons why we cannot act but the icing on the inaction cake is the hijacking of the debate by the liberal hand-wringing fraternity, which has created a consensus that - in a nutshell - nothing can be done as we have tried being horrible to criminals and it didn’t work and we should now be nice as it’s society’s fault they turned out bad anyway. This view is particularly prevalent in the media where the debate now gets no further than finding excuses for the criminals and dealing with the fallout of crime rather than the crime itself. It was sad but so predictable that after the murder of Mr. Nyembo-Ya-Muteba, the BBC were among the first to divert attention from the real issue with quotes from well-meaning vicars blaming cannabis for the violence in our society. It then only took a moment to run with this theme by hosting a phone-in as soon as possible about the dangers of cannabis. This entirely misses the point, and they know it.

Those who engage in this cod-psychology are, by accident or design, painting a picture of violent criminality being too complicated to deal with. An irrelevant debate doesn’t tackle the issues that we really do have remedies for. Let’s face it, it really is not that difficult to target, round up and prosecute - to the full extent of our numerous laws - violent thugs who will murder at the slightest provocation. We can debate the reasons for their behaviour after they are safely locked up.

What is certain is that when criminals see no meaningful consequences of their actions we can hardly be surprised when a group of teenagers have no compunction about casually stabbing someone merely for asking them to pipe down.

We are constantly being informed about ‘this new law’ or ‘this initiative’ or anti-social behaviour legislation or whatever, and indeed this Government has introduced more and more draconian laws and restrictions on our liberties. At the same time we are told that we need more of these laws whilst the existing ones sit on the statute books gathering dust. The reality is these measures are merely becoming a smokescreen for doing little or nothing. They are not a signal for real action and once they are introduced with the typical fanfare and spin that we are now used to from this Labour Government, the media then will move on leaving those supposedly responsible to get on with doing... well, not much actually.

My blueprint is quite simple, let’s leave the excuses and self-recriminations aside and start high profile action in the trouble spots: arrest the criminals and incarcerate them in full accordance with the laws available to us. When teenagers actually see their mates going to jail for a minimum of five years for carrying a knife, rather than hand wringing crap about how powerless we are, then we may start getting somewhere. Despite what we are told by the amateur criminologists we have not actually tried this approach of - shock-horror, actually apprehending and incarcerating criminals according to the law.

Maybe it’s time to try this approach so we may look forward to the day that murder on our streets is a rarity rather than a daily occurrence.

It just needs political will - and more prisons of course - not yet more irrelevant debate.

© Mark Hart 2006                                                                                  {Ref 1002}


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