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Latest Outcry Over Violent Crime In London Has A Familiar Ring


The violent crime rate in London spiked earlier this year. It got a whole lot of media attention and some new anti-crime proposals from the government. But people working with at-risk youth say these spikes have been going on for years, and the responses haven't really done much. So is this time going to be any different? NPR's Peter Kenyon has the story.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: For two straight months, London's violent crime rate topped New York City's, but don't take that to mean London is the more dangerous city. Measured over a full year, New York's rate remains much higher. Even so, the spike in stabbings and some shootings as well raised alarm bells in Parliament and among media commentators. Prime Minister Theresa May rushed forward with a new slate of anti-crime measures. But for those working with urban youth every day, the latest outcry has a familiar ring.

STEVEN ITA: (Unintelligible).

KENYON: Steven Ita with the charity The eXceL Project - XLP for short - is cheering on a team of at-risk teenage boys on a London soccer field. Ita says he hopes this isn't just another round of tough-sounding rhetoric that yields little, if any, real progress, but if the past is any guide, it might be.

ITA: That's what annoys me in a way - that we seem to have discussions about youth violence and things like that and nothing seems to be done to address the root causes - family breakdowns. I'm talking about failure in the educational system. I'm talking about police, and I'm talking about cuts in youth services, things like that.

KENYON: XLP works in more than 75 schools and in neighborhoods across south and east London. It's painstaking work with no guarantee of success, but Ita believes it's making a difference. Standing nearby is one of the group's success stories.

TAZ MAHMOUD: I'm Taz. I'm 19, and I'm from east London.

KENYON: Taz Mahmoud says he grew up around gang members and struggled in school. After discovering XLP's youth program at a soccer session, he began to see a future for himself, brought his grades up and started volunteering to help other young people in similar straits.

MAHMOUD: So I have a close neighbor who got involved with gangs at a young age, but luckily XLP and myself have been able to bring them out, so that's a really good thing.

KENYON: If this all sounds a bit too easy, consider this - it almost didn't happen. Mahmoud says when he turned 16, he hit what he calls a rough patch - he doesn't want to go into details - and cut off contact with the charity. Things could have gone very wrong, but he says what saved him was a sudden passion for physical fitness and his re-engagement with XLP, which helped him find work at a local gym. Experts say for every success story like Mahmoud's, there are also many failures that see years of work wind up counting for nothing. So is this a moment British policymakers are prepared to seize? Not everyone thinks so.

MARIAN FITZGERALD: Well, it's another moment where politicians feel they have to stand up and sound as though they're doing something. And they've been doing that for the last nearly 20 years to my knowledge.

KENYON: Professor Marian Fitzgerald is a criminologist at the University of Kent. She remembers the last time youth crime hit the headlines when acid attacks grabbed the public's attention. She says most politicians have no idea what it's like to grow up with a constant sense of menace, the need to be street smart and able to defend yourself at a young age. Most policies tend not to target what she calls the serious hardcore of dangerous youth, the ones who terrify other children into carrying a knife for self-defense. Fitzgerald also says funding cuts have left those making at least some difference on the front lines fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.

FITZGERALD: But then the prescription is, oh, we need more family support, we need more psychological interventions. But those services have been decimated in all areas over the last 15 years.

KENYON: At the moment, this latest spike in violence appears to have subsided, leaving people to wonder if the political will to do something more about youth violence will subside along with it. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, London.


Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.