Acting Cheshire Chief Constable Janette McCormick says the police approach to young people carrying knives is shifting towards seeing them more as victims than criminals.
Mrs McCormick said many of these youngsters were being exploited by criminal gangs who use them to deal drugs on the street.
This mistakenly led them to carry knives as a form of protection.
She recognised treating them as victims was a ‘hard message’ because some may consider police were ‘going soft’ but her aim was to create safer communities. Sometimes this meant exploring alternatives to the criminal justice system.
Mrs McCormick, who spoke to journalists following a media briefing at Cheshire police HQ in Winsford, said knife crime was closely linked to a drugs world that pervades Cheshire just as it does London, Liverpool or Manchester.
She said: “I think there’s a perception it’s just metropolitan, it’s the big cities, but actually it’s happening in our towns and schools around every county. We particularly see it where we might get travelling criminality coming in from the metropolitan areas, actually exploiting some of our young people to do this and to deal in local areas.
“It’s exploiting people’s vulnerabilities and that could be people with disabilities, people with mental health issues as well as young people. So it is coming into an area and seeing how they can trade and they are using young people to do that.
“I think the challenge for us is that very much if we stop them through possession of a knife then we get to the criminal justice system. So how do we see them more as a victim rather than as an offender because we do know that once we criminalise young people then their life chances in terms of jobs, opportunities, volunteering; is on a downhill spiral.
“So we’re trying to think differently around how we educate young people whether it’s through the school or if we touch upon the criminal environment; how do we divert them from that?”
Asked why young people carry knives, she suggested: “There are a couple of things. One is linked to that perception that ‘I’ve got to protect myself because others are’ and it is a perception that just escalates. Other things about protection, perhaps the link to criminal activity linked to organised crime groups particularly around drugs.
“And actually young people are being exploited. They are being exploited by the gangs to actually carry, store, transport drugs and in some ways it’s a labour, it’s a form of modern slavery. So we’re trying to think differently about how we treat them as victims and not just offenders and that’s quite a hard message in terms of the public because some people might say we’re going soft on it.
“But it’s actually looking at longer term prevention and better outcomes for young people.”
Intelligence-led stop and searches targeting certain young people has proved effective in pinpointing those carrying knives and drugs.
The top cop recognises such methods are ‘invasive’ but added: “What we have seen is, when we’ve done that, we are finding those weapons, finding the drugs. We are having a better outcome rate from the people we are stopping so we are stopping the right people, importantly.”
But won’t seeking an alternatives to criminal convictions hit the constabulary’s clear-up rate?
“You can look at figures and you can look at what you want to achieve and what we want to achieve is the safest place in Cheshire and to enforce is not always the way. I think that’s about having those conversations with the public about what’s the best route? Is it the best route to take the person to court, is it the best route to give this person a criminal conviction, or actually can we educate, prevent and divert them from crime?”