For the first time ever, London's murder rate is surpassing that of New York City, driven mainly by knife attacks, but adding to the problem in the past two months is gun violence, despite strict controls on weapons ownership, say law enforcement officials.
Two attacks Wednesday took the total number of murders in the British capital in 2018 to more than 50. An 18-year-old man was stabbed to death in east London late in the day, while just two kilometers away, a 53-year-old man died after being assaulted.
A 17-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy were shot Monday in the Tottenham district in the northern part of the city. The girl died in the hospital a short time later, while the boy succumbed to his wounds Tuesday.
Local residents find themselves living in the midst of the spike in violent crime. "It's not a bad area; it's very quiet," said Tottenham resident Pauline Piert. "There's not any trouble around here. This is why I'm very horrified and shocked to come out this morning and find out that one of my residents is deceased.”
British police investigated 37 killings in the capital in February and March — compared to 32 homicides in New York City. The two shootings on Monday brought the total number of murders in London this year to close to 50.
Despite the shootings, police say knife crime is to blame for most of the recent killings, fueled by gang wars in parts of the capital.
London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan blames government budget cuts and falling numbers of police, a criticism echoed by former metropolitan police chief superintendent Leroy Logan.
“These things are symptoms of a system that is breaking. We’re at a crisis point and we really need to deal with it," Logan told VOA. "And this is not just policing, it’s other services. We need to understand that the government have really got blood on their hands because they’ve cut back so much. And they’re seeing these body bags mounting, and not doing anything with it."
The government strongly rejects claims that budget cuts are to blame and says London policing is the responsibility of the city’s mayor.
London’s metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, has said youth gangs use social media to provoke each other into violence.
A campaign launched last month in the capital, called #knifefree, aims to use true stories to warn young people of the dangers of carrying knives.
“Young people coming from dysfunctional families in crime-ridden areas, being excluded from school, being groomed by elders into using a knife or a gun at an early stage, using that as an initiation into a gang,” says former police chief Logan, describing how youths can gravitate toward joining the gangs.
The murder rate in New York has been falling sharply since the mid-1990s — in part because of controversial "stop and frisk" tactics by police. The practice, however, was eventually ruled unconstitutional. Anti-gang and neighborhood policing initiatives also are credited with reducing violent crime in New York.
British lawmakers want London authorities to learn from their American counterparts and take what’s described as a "public health" approach to violent crime.
Despite the increase in killings, the annual homicide rate in London for 2017 was less than half that of New York. It’s not yet clear if the recent murders are part of a longer term trend.