Thursday, 24 December 2009

Why are UK teenage killings down?

Having been aware of the issue for some time, I was intrigued to see a report yesterday on the BBC website that the murder rate amongst teenagers has shown a sudden and dramatic drop. The report begins as follows:
The number of teenagers killed violently in the UK has fallen by 30% in one year, BBC research has found.
The BBC teen homicide database, which records murder and manslaughter cases, shows 51 10 to 19-year olds lost their lives in 2009 compared with 72 in 2008.
Most 2009 victims were male and half of all those killed were stabbed. Twelve were beaten and two were shot.
Police say anti-knife crime tactics explain the drop, but critics argue it is too early to make such conclusions.
Back in June I blogged about a possible increase in the number of teenagers committing murder. This article was the result of a hunch, based initially (as it happens) on reports from the BBC news website. Later in the year, however, I was able to obtain proper figures which showed a definite increase in the rate of teenagers convicted of murder, going back to some time in the mid 1990s. In many cases, the victims of these teenage murderers are also themselves teenagers. Hence the decline in teenage murders will probably also indicate a decline in teenage murderers.
Again based on the absence of news reports, I had begun to suspect that the number of murders involving teenagers had indeed declined this year, so this story is no great surprise. Indeed, it must be welcomed. As it indicates, however, there are a number of unanswered questions.
One is whether or not the decline will be sustained. The chart I produced from the figures supplied shows occasional dips as well as a gradual rise in the number of teenagers convicted of murder. However, it must be pointed out that murders by teenagers sometimes involve multiple perpetrators —ie they are instances of gang attacks —and so it might only take one or two fewer killings to produce a significant drop in the number of killers. Both the dips and the rises on this chart may be affected by this factor. By contrast, a large drop in the number of murders would, on the face of it, seem more significant, since single incidents rarely involve more than one victim.
The second question, posed in the BBC article itself, is what might have caused a decline. The police and Home Office point (unsurprisingly) to their own initiatives. Others suggest the informal counselling done by staff in hospital A and E departments.
For my own part, I wonder if the decline has been caused, actually, by teenagers. Young people have always had their own, informal but powerful, sub-culture, created by the things in which they take an interest —games, fashions, TV programmes, the internet and so on. People of my age well remember the seaside clashes of Mods and Rockers back in the ’60s. Then came the ‘Hippy’ movement and Flower Power. The fashions came and went, shaped by the trend-makers, but dependent, ultimately, on the young people themselves.
It would be no surprise to me if the teenage community simply decided it had had enough of violence —at least at the level sufficient to result in someone’s death. Maybe all those ‘shrines’ on Facebook and Myspace have had an effect. There is nothing quite as capable of bringing an end to a trend amongst young people as negative peer pressure. Certainly it would be worth investigating wether this might be so. I am much less easily convinced that it has been the result of anything said or done by adult ‘officialdom’!
Then there is the third, related, question, which is what caused (or, maybe, is still causing) the nevertheless high rate of these killings, for behind the apparent decrease is certainly a previous increase, as the figures show. Was this, too, a ‘fashion’, and if so, what drove it? Just as importantly, could it have been ‘nipped in the bud’ at an early stage?
Any decline in violence must be welcomed, but we should remember that there is still a subculture out there which, I suspect, would horrify most of us from more sheltered backgrounds.
John Richardson
24 December 2009
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  1. First I think we need to establish if this really is a statistically significant decline.

    For one thing, 2009 is not over yet, and for various reasons the rate of killings in the last few days of the year might be noticeably higher than in the rest of the year. And then, if I remember correctly, the 2008 figure was exceptionally high, and so a one year decrease may just be a return to the long term trend.

    In any case a fall from 72 to 51 could well be caused by random factors (I'm sure there are statisticians among your readers who could confirm that) and so has no statistical significance.

    I also note a confusion in your article between killings of teenagers (the BBC statistics) and killings by teenagers (your chart and much of your discussion). While the two are linked they are certainly not the same thing.

  2. Peter, whilst it is good to hear from you, I don't think you've read the above article at all carefully.

    First, I do take up the question of whether this is a real decline or a 'blip'. In the questions this raises, I consider first, "whether or not the decline will be sustained" adding, "The chart I produced from the figures supplied shows occasional dips as well as a gradual rise in the number of teenagers convicted of murder."

    Secondly, there is no confusion, as you allege, between the killings of and by teenagers. However, as I pointed out when comparing these BBC figures with my own, "In many cases, the victims of these teenage murderers are also themselves teenagers. Hence the decline in teenage murders will probably also indicate a decline in teenage murderers."

    Happy Christmas, though.

  3. John, I take your point that you did suggest that this might be a "blip", but I still consider it to be irresponsible to report a change which is not statistically significant as "a sudden and dramatic drop", and then to discuss at length the reasons for something which may have no reason except for randomness. I accept that in your error you are simply copying the police and the Home Office spokeswoman reported by the BBC.

    Happy Christmas!

  4. In Glasgow, I'm unsure that the types of lads who are willing to commit murder are those who would say to themselves, "I've had enough of teen violence" or who would be influenced by shrines on Facebook or whatever. Carrying a knife seems to be regarded as a basic human right and using it a necessary evil.

    Since becoming a teacher in a Secondary school up here, I am shocked at the level of violence in Glasgow's housing schemes; you are right, many of us have no idea as to what goes on in British subculture.

    Like you too, I'm at a loss as to why the violence seems to come in waves, leaving peaks and troughs on the stats sheet.

  5. Could your recent Property boom/slump have had something to do with it? From your graph it very roughly seems that besides the early-80's blip, juvenile convictions for murder mainly rose around boom-times.

    Michael Canaris (Sydney)

  6. Apparently, this isn't a solely English/Welsh phenomenon.

  7. I have read that that according to the police, the reason teenage killings have decreased is the result of improved emergency treatment by paramedics and at A & E. Thus more lives are saved than formerly. The number of violent incidents involving guns knives etc have not decreased.

  8. Have you taken into consideration:

    The growing population in the UK (so the proportion of convictions may not be increasing, just the general number of the populus)?
    The growing number of police, which correlates very well with the increase in reported murders as far back as the early 1900s?

    Expressed as a percentage 50 convictions in a population of 60 million is miniscule. Your refusal to do any regression analysis or show the statistical deviations makes your assertions of a discovered trend foolish.

    For a more cogent discussion of the topic see Prospect Magazine, current issue, article title "Calling all criminologists..." and see why those that know think this is a far more complex issue than can reasonably dealt with by a vicar.

  9. I think the UK killings went down because the narrative of these murders was moved away from threatening and all powerful gangs to scared and frightened kids who acted in a misguided and stupid way.

    When you create a high threat scenario people act out in a high threat way. So everyone felt that they had to respond to any slight disagreement with maximum and lethal force otherwise they would end up dead themselves.

    The police were also instructed to stop blaming what were basically kids for their own demise and start acting as their protectors.

    Things are still improving in terms of reduced numbers being killed, but each one is still an awful event.