Throughout the month of February, we’re telling the story of the 21 teenagers who were murdered in 2023. Our campaign, The 21, seeks to remember every victim as a young person with a family and their whole life ahead of them. We want to change the culture of kids carrying knives and becoming involved in violence.

Whilst there is "no more serious crime than a homicide”, violence involving young people on London's streets is a complex issue to navigate. We find out more about how the Metropolitan Police plan to deal with this matter going forward and some of the problems that the force is facing.

Communities continue to mourn 21 teenage lives lost to violence in 2023, leaving many with questions relating to delays in arrests, police resourcing, the lack of trust in the force and prevention. 

Commander Owain Richards from the Metropolitan Police spoke with Newsquest London about the ongoing battle against knife crime and youth violence across the capital.

He has nearly 28 years of experience in policing and is currently part of the Chief Officer group - where he is responsible for reducing youth violence across London along with geographical responsibility for 11 London boroughs.

Why young people become involved in violence

Commander Richards says there are many reasons why young people may be involved in violence - such as their motivation, status, a desire to be part of a gang, their upbringing (being exposed to domestic violence for example) or being exploited.

He told Newsquest London:  “We know that young people are coerced to be part of gangs, involved in what we know as County lines—predominantly young people being used by drug dealers to supply and carry drugs from cities into rural areas.

“Often, they are exposed to violence through thefts, robberies of drugs, or carrying knives for their own protection and sadly we know those knives can result in them being harmed.”

Commander Richards also feels that knife crime is a national epidemic, and that gang culture is an urban phenomenon – not just specifically a London issue.

Challenges with arrests

He says “there is no more serious crime than a homicide” and that experienced officers and resources are always sent to each case, but he “acknowledges that, on occasions, there will be some delays in identifying and arresting suspects.”

On arrests, Commander Richards explained: “The detection rate for homicides is one of the best, if not the best in the world. I think we detect nine out of 10 homicides, effectively, it's high 90 per cent.

"Now, there will always be reasons why we may not be able to identify a suspect. CCTV is probably, along with forensic evidence, one of the most effective ways of identifying a suspect.”

This occurred in relation to a case involving 17-year-old student Ilyas Habibi who was stabbed and killed near Sutton Station on December 5, 2023.

Shortly after arriving by train, police believe Ilyas was involved in a confrontation with a suspect who fled the scene.

Emergency services responded, and Ilyas was declared dead around 8am.

It wasn't until December 11 that officers found out that the suspect had left the country from London Gatwick Airport on December 9.

Commander Richards said that he was not familiar with the details of the case in Sutton but added that there is an expectation that a railway station would have a reasonable amount of CCTV, but this could still be impacted by various factors.

He added: "We are utilizing all available techniques, both covert and overt methods, to track them down because they clearly pose a risk to the general public.”

Identifying suspects through CCTV poses challenges in dark conditions or when individuals wear dark clothing or face coverings.

Witness fear of reprisals can also hinder investigations, particularly in cases involving gang-related or motivated homicides.

Commander Richards said: “We recognize as well that young black boys are disproportionately affected by knife crime. It's a societal issue that needs to be addressed to protect them.

“There is also more distrust amongst the black community with police officers, we've got a lot of work to do to restore that trust. I'm committed to reassuring and engaging with communities.”

Police resources

When asked about whether resources were having an impact on homicide arrests, he explained that the impact of the conflict in the Middle East, specifically between Israel and Hamas, was having an effect on policing resources in central London.

More than 20,000 officer shifts have been dedicated to policing related protests.

Diverting resources from neighbourhood policing meaning that officers are being drawn from areas like south London to help manage the protests in central, according to Commander Richards, who described it as “a real challenge for us in terms of juggling our resources.”

Moving forwards into 2024

In terms of what is coming into play this year, Commander Richards highlights the launch of new supercharged local proactive teams, comprised of uniform and detective officers targeting perpetrators of serious violent and acquisitive crime, such as robbery.

He said that in London, street robbery is a particular challenge, with 20 per cent of it being knife-enabled.

Policing teams also use annual operations like Operation Sector to intensify efforts against knife crime, including weapon sweeps, stop and search, and knife surrenders.

Commander Richards explained: “We also run test purchase operations, where our young volunteer police cadets go into shops and stores to purchase knives underage.

“We issue warnings to retailers, and for repeat offenders, we may take more stringent actions, aiming to raise awareness among retailers and staff about the impact on young people if knives are easily accessible."

He explained the police’s collaboration with the violence reduction unit, which commissions local organizations and charities to work with young people and their families.

“Yes, we have to enforce, but it's also crucial to build trust, engage with young people, and try to motivate them. This involves working with their families, social services, and the broader community to break the cycle of crime.

“We also know there is a significant overlap between victims and offenders when it comes to young people," he said.

Violence Harm Index

The development of a violence harm index is set to be introduced as a new initiative, aiming to assess individuals' risk factors and involvement in violent activities using the University of Cambridge's Crime Harm Index.

Commander Richards explained: “What we find is that many young people on this list who are both at risk of being stabbed due to their associations equally as the risk that they pose risks to others as well.

“The Violence Harm Index is a new initiative, different from the Gangs Matrix, which we are discontinuing due to issues of disproportionality issues.

“It takes a broader approach, examining sexual offenders, robbers, and perpetrators of violent crime so it is much broader than just gangs.

“Part of the work on the Violence Harm Index involves intervening at an early stage.

"We utilize factors from someone's background and intelligence, considering the possibility that they may have been a suspect in a previous crime but were not prosecuted for various reasons.

“Our goal is to intervene and prevent further incidents.”

Whilst knife crime victims and perpetrators are usually younger people, he explained that victims of knife crime for those under 25 are seeing a slight decline, whereas the victims of knife crime over 25 are seeing an uptick.

Help and support

Commander Richards offered some advice on what to do if you know someone who you believe may be groomed into a gang, or if you are getting concerned about a friend or family member.

He said: “I think it has to be a compassionate response and particularly if it's a young person, then it has to be a child-centred approach because they themselves, while they may pose a risk to others, they are clearly at risk as well.

“You should try and understand where they're going, what they're doing, understand the risk factors, approach their family, their carers and there may be social services involved.

“How can you help them take steps to reduce the risk themselves but also to put steps in place to support them to break that cycle.”

The Metropolitan Police encourages the public to call the police on 101, or contact the independent charity Crimestoppers, on 0800 555 111 with any information they may have about violent crime in their area – any information, no matter how small could build a picture that may potentially save a life.

Crimestoppers will never trace your call and will always keep your identity anonymous.