Why do people still carry knives?
Five stabbings in Shropshire in 24 hours – plus a knife murder just over the county boundary in Bromsgrove. Headlines like this were once thought to be the preserve of the big cities. But the tragic events that marked the start of 2018 have shown that no part of Britain is immune from knife crime which costs hundreds of lives every year.
While the wave of knife violence that swept the county in the new year is undoubtedly terrible for those involved, Supt Tom Harding of West Mercia Police points out that knife crime is falling in the county.
"We know that there has been around a 20 per cent reduction in violent crime with injuries in Telford and Shropshire for the last 28 days compared with the same period in 2016," he says.
"We have demonstrated and offered assurance to the public that we do not and will not tolerate knife crime and we will continue to tackle violent criminality and keep our counties safe."
Mr Harding believes many people would not carry knives if they really thought through the consequences of their actions. And he says that even if you are not the one brandishing the weapon, hanging around with somebody who does can have life-changing consequences.
"If someone is injured or killed by a knife in your presence, even if you’re not the one using the weapon, you too could be prosecuted," he says.
"You could be sent to prison for murder in what is referred to as ‘joint enterprise’."
He points out that saying a weapon is for your own protection will make no difference should you be arrested.
"If you are caught carrying a knife you will be arrested and prosecuted, regardless of whether you say it was for your own protection or you were carrying it for someone else.
"Getting a criminal record could affect your whole life; future job prospects, going to college or university, travelling abroad and possession of a knife can carry a prison sentence of up to four years.
"It’s your choice to carry a weapon and you are putting your future in danger."
In September last year, West Mercia Police held a knife-surrender campaign – the force is keen to stress that this was not an amnesty – which saw 265 knives and three swords handed in at Shropshire's two main police stations.
The surrender, part of a national campaign called Operation Sceptre, was launched in the wake of a fatal stabbing in Shrewsbury. Declan Graves, 20, of Liverpool, was jailed for life after stabbing 16-year-old Michael Warham through the heart during a gang dispute in Wayford Close, Meole Brace, in 2016.
The campaign saw about 200 blades handed in at Telford's Malinslee police station, and 60 more at Shrewsbury.
"Carrying any offensive weapon in public is a criminal offence, regardless of the reason," says Mr Harding.
He says that when the three separate incidents flared up on New Year's Day – two in Shrewsbury, one in Telford – police were swiftly on the scene to deal with the problem, containing the trouble and making arrests. He says extra officers were on patrol over the Christmas period to keep the public safe during the celebrations.
The liberal-leaning Centre for Crime and Justice Studies says that policing alone is unlikely to be the answer to cutting knife crime.
In 2009, the charity carried out a comprehensive review of gun and knife crime strategies, on behalf of the then Children's Commissioner for England, Albert Aynesley-Green. It claimed that a "zero tolerance" approach to weapon possession was ineffective, and that more work was needed to change the attitudes among young people.
The report said merely seeking do disarm offenders, without looking at the insecurities which led them to carry weapons, was tackling the symptoms rather than the cause.
"The concentrations of violence in particular areas, and the reasons behind some young people’s perceived need for weapons and their willingness to use them ought to be the policy focus," said the report.
"Addressing the violence, victimisation and risk that affect their lives would seem an essential starting point."
While many will accept that basic premise that there are deeper problems that need addressing, there is also an argument that it is the symptoms themselves that are the problem; if people don't carry knives, they can't use them.
The police will also argue that the thrust of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies report – that the best solutions come when the police work with other organisations to tackle the reasons why people carry knives in the first place – are something they have been doing for years.
Police and crime commissioner for West Mercia, John Campion, says: “Any incident involving a knife is one too many and I am committed to ensuring the public are safe and secure.
"This includes the investments I’ve made to ensure that police are visible in our communities, and the projects I’ve commissioned to tackle the underlying causes of criminal behaviour.
"Our communities should be reassured by the police’s response in dealing with these incidents, and by ongoing preventative work, including the recent knife surrender."
Mr Harding says people really need to think about what could happen if they take a knife with them.
He says anyone can be a victim of knife crime.
"It's not just people in gangs, innocent bystanders can get caught in the middle of other people’s disputes.
"It is never acceptable for someone to carry a knife and I want to remind people of the devastating consequences that can result from people choosing to carry them," he warns.
"If you don’t take it with you it won’t be used."