Knife crime has been high on the national agenda in recent weeks as police forces and the Government grapple with a disturbing increase in violence which has had tragic consequences for too many young people.
In the Westcountry we’re considerably safer than inner-city Birmingham or London but we are not immune. My home town of Paignton has seen knives used in a number of crimes in recent weeks, and there have been incidents all across our force area in the past year.
Despite these crimes, of 43 police forces in England and Wales, Devon and Cornwall has the sixth lowest rate of knife crime – and a rate that’s less than half the national average. The number of possession of weapons offences increased by 18%, but this relates to proactive police work designed to specifically target knife crime.
This week people who have made the poor decision to carry a knife will once again have an opportunity to do something positive and get rid of it in a responsible way.
The Devon and Cornwall Police knife amnesty will see bins installed at stations across the two counties. Hopefully it will take hundreds of blades off the streets.
The last such amnesty – across four days in September – saw some truly horrific weapons handed in. So-called zombie knives, machetes and even swords were taken off the streets. I’d urge anyone who has a bladed weapon to take this chance to dispose of it, safe in the knowledge that they are making their home town or city safer and during this campaign they won’t face prosecution.
Of course, the police face major challenges in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly but we still live in one of the safest parts of the UK.
I think it vital that we remain vigilant when it comes to violent crime and have considered the argument that a fall in police numbers has contributed to an increase in violent crime.
The fact is that it’s hard to draw a direct link between police numbers and violent crime, over the years both have risen and dropped at different points, but I do think more officers is part of the solution, that’s why in the two years I’ve been in office I’ve worked with the chief constable to increase force strength.
By the end of next year we should have 3,100 sworn officers, an increase of 186 on 2016, but still fewer than a decade ago.
That increase is part of the solution, but I think problems with violence occur because of deeper issues in society, and for that we have to work in partnership with educators, social services and third-sector organisations to ensure that people see a way forward that does not involve crime. People with prospects and hope do not stab each other.
If we can divert people from criminality and towards a productive and meaningful life there’s a huge opportunity to save public money and improve outcomes. A life spent in employment is infinitely more rewarding and beneficial for the individual and society than one spent in regular contact with the police and prison.
That’s why I was so pleased to see South Devon’s Turning Corners youth intervention project receive Government funding. It seeks to identify young people who are at risk of becoming involved in gangs and then offer them more attractive alternatives.
The police must then, of course, robustly enforce the law so anyone caught with a knife as a weapon, or who illegally sells knives, faces the consequences. The maximum penalty for an adult carrying a knife is four years in prison and an unlimited fine. You’ll get a prison sentence if you’re convicted of carrying a knife more than once.
It’s also worth knowing that, according to the Ministry of Justice, this is not a phenomenon that’s confined to teenagers. Four out of five of those who commit knife offences are adults.
So if you, or someone you love, carries a knife I’d strongly recommend taking advantage of this week’s amnesty. Most police stations which are open to the public will have collection bins in which members of the public can deposit items anonymously. These are located at Truro, Pydar Street; Bodmin, Tollgate Road; St Austell, Palace Road; Camborne, South Terrace; Plymouth, Crownhill and Plymouth Charles Cross; Barnstaple, North Walk; Exeter, Heavitree Road; Plymouth, Charles Cross and Torquay, South Street.