As The Star publishes a powerful supplement on knife crime, featuring a report of our debate and first hand accounts of the devastating impact of attacks, we sat down with Det Supt Una Jennings to ask what South Yorkshire police are doing to keep our streets safe. Does Sheffield have a problem with gangs and what work is being carried out to steer our young people away from knife crime?
What is South Yorkshire Police's strategy to tackling knife crime?
"In terms of our over-arching message around knife crime, and indeed, violent crime, in South Yorkshire is that it has no place in our communities.
"We will be taking swift, decisive action against anyone who is involved in that sort of criminality in our city.
“The strong focus of the strategy that we've put in place is around early intervention and prevention so essentially identifying the root causes of knife-related criminality and evidence based interventions that will effectively deal with it, and I think the thing that is the most impressive about the new approach we are taking is the fact we're working very closely in partnership with the local community and indeed with partner agencies in the statutory and voluntary sector to implement a system to tackle violent crime right across the city.
"We've taken a public health approach around knife-enabled crime since July of last year, when it came under my commanding control, and later this month on September 10 we will launch the first multi-agency knife crime strategy for Sheffield city from 2018 through to 2021."
She added: "This is not something the police can sort out for Sheffield and South Yorkshire; it's something we need to own in our home and in our schools and in our community groups. It's something that in particular, the last time I spoke about this I talked about a particular focus on women.
“Because, and I found this in Northern Ireland as well, some of the women in our families can have a real impact and it's predominantly young men who are involved in this type of crime, in terms of just making sure they're making informed choices about what they're doing.
“I would imagine that a good proportion of the young people that are involved in knife-enabled crime do not leave they're homes on a given day intending to be involved in this type of serious criminality, but nonetheless we have people who are dying in the streets.
“So that's really a conversation we need to try and support and reinforce taking place in people's homes and I hope that's something we'll be doing over the course of the next 12 months."
Does Sheffield have a problem with gangs?
"There are a number of interconnected factors as to why we are seeing an increase in knife-enabled crime. From changes to how police record crime, through, potentially, to people having more confidence in reporting to the police.
"And they've all played their part in the scene we've seen, in terms of increases in South Yorkshire Police.
"For me, I feel there a couple of things that are particularly relevant. I think we have seen an increase in social acceptance around carrying knives, particularly among our young people.
“The explanation they often give is that they're carrying them for self protection, but actually we know you're three times more likely to become the victim of knife crime if you're carrying a knife than you are if you're not. And I think there is an issue around gaming, gang culture, the glamorization of carrying weapons nationally that we have seen.
"In South Yorkshire, specifically, I don't think we have an issue in relation to knife-enabled crime and gangs. Certainly, the statistics we have around those people we know have been involved with knife-enabled criminality would suggest that it's not necessarily gang related.”
What is the rise in knife crime to do with, if it's not gang related?
"I don't think anybody can offer an evidence-based opinion as to why we've seen an increase in the carrying of knives, either in South Yorkshire or nationally, but what you'll here is a lot of anecdotal evidence around knives such as social acceptance, potentially some of the impacts of social media and the glamourising the carrying of weapons have had.
"But the reality is: no-one really knows. I think it actually is quite a complex picture with lots of interconnected social factors on why we're seeing an increase in violent crime in general, and knife crime is just one element of that.
We hear about a lot of 'targeted' stabbings or violent attacks; and I think people may assume that such incidents are motivated by gangs and drugs. What are they to do with?
"Clearly, a lot of the investigations you're talking about are quite recent, and they're currently under investigation so what I couldn't say is actually any of the specific motives we believe could be involved in those. What I would say is: you hardly ever find that anyone is walking down the street and will become a victim of a knife attack in a random manner.
“For example: some of the statistics we have seen from the Met Police would tell us of the 135 suspects that they have arrested for homicides last year, 76 per cent of them were also suspects and victims in knife-enabled crime.
"So you tend to see quite a strong overlap between the victim and perpertrator group in knife-enabled crime. So when we say that they're targeted, what we mean is, generally speaking, that we understand the context of that attack and that it wasn't necessarily a random thing.
Is South Yorkshire Police reaching out to young people in a bid to prevent knife crime from taking place?
"We're doing lots of things. We've spoken to over 30,000 children over the course of the last year through our 'guns and knives take lives' programme. What we're doing this year now is we're hoping to work with every Year 7, right across South Yorkshire which will be inclusive of Sheffield of course. And that's being supported by Sheffield Hallam University in putting a proper valuation around that.
"Again, that will be the first time that's been done nationally so that we can understand if the intervention we are delivering to our children is actually having an impact, in terms of their attitudes around carrying knives, so that's quite a pioneering thing for us to do.
"As I've said we have a partnership with a range of agencies and a range of different community groups and partners to make sure we're getting that conversation happening in our homes and in our schools, and amongst our family members.
"The reality is that by the time it gets to the point that I'm dealing with knife-enabled crime, either from the perspective of working with a victim, or indeed dealing with a perpetrator, actually it's too late. Everything else has failed anyway, and we've seen that a number of times over the course of the last few years.
"What I would say is: the context in South Yorkshire is changing. What we have seen this year for the first time is that we've fallen below the national average, in terms of the percentage rise, year-on-year. So what we've seen this year, nationally, is a 16 per cent rise in knife-enabled crime. In South Yorkshire we've only seen a 14 per cent rise, so what that's telling us is the things we've started to do over the course over the last 12 months are starting to work.
"In the last quarter, we've actually seen a reduction in the number of knife victims that we had, relative to the same time last year. That's the first time we've seen that in three years.
"What that would suggest is the things we're starting to do locally is starting to have an impact in terms of what we're actually seeing in the street. Caveated by the fact that every one of those percentages is a victim, and that's where the real issue, and the real story, is. So one victim is one too many for us. That said, we are doing the right things and are starting to see the dividends of that being paid out now, in terms of the numbers of people and the numbers of victims that we're seeing in South Yorkshire.
Do you find that people not coming forward, and providing police with information, is a problematic aspect of investigating knife crime?
"It's a problematic aspect of any investigation. I think it is very difficult, and we do understand how difficult it is for people to come forward and give evidence to the police. And it'll always be an issue around criminal investigations. What I would say is that some of the key evidence and the key information that has been essential in us trying to tackle this directly, has come from members of the public in South Yorkshire.
"And we are always super supportive towards anyone that comes forward to share information with the police. And are always very receptive to what it is that they've got to say. So I don't think it's particular to knife crime; I think it is just a challenge in general.
We've heard about a review of the number of PCSOs on South Yorkshire's streets. How is that likely to affect frontline policing?
"What you're talking about is cuts to visible policing, and I suppose my position on that is that I'm a police officer, of course I'll always want more police officers on the street. I think good policing does make a difference to communities.
“However, what's equally as important as the number of people we have on the street is what we do with them. It's much more complicated than making binary comparisons between different number sets.
“So we know demand is changing in policing, and it's not just around violent crime. So actually, we have to take a much more three-dimensional view of how we target the police resource that we are going to deploy on our streets.
"It's not just about numbers, it's about what our police officers are doing as well.”