Out in Wray Crescent with the police and volunteers who 'sweep' Islington's parks for deadly weapons
PUBLISHED: 17:00 01 December 2017
'Knife sweeps' in Islington's green spaces are a key method of taking potentially deadly blades off the borough's streets. The Gazette accompanied police and church volunteers to Wray Crescent, not far from the Andover Estate.
In June 2008, Ben Kinsella was stabbed to death in Islington. The 16-year-old got caught in the middle of an argument that had nothing to do with him. The attack was unprovoked.
It’s almost 10 years later, and the Gazette is in a Finsbury Park playground with blue latex gloves on, scrabbling around for knives.
We are on a weapons sweep with six officers from Islington South police and 12 members of nearby St Mellitus and St Mark’s churches.
Since Ben’s death, knife crime has only gone up. In Islington, knife offences in the past year have risen more than a third.
Volunteers from St Mellitus are aware of the numbers. A huge banner hangs outside the church, reading: “Choose life, drop the knife.”
Their Peace and Justice group is working hard to tackle the knife problem among young people in the borough. The banner was volunteer Percy Aggett’s idea. He’s also trying to get a weapons disposal bin, like the one at neighbouring St Mark’s Church. The knife sweeps are their third strategy.
This is the first sweep they’ve been on. After a brief safety briefing from Pc Joe Kitchingham – “if we start running, you run the opposite direction” – we set off to Wray Crescent, a playground and cricket pitch about 10 minutes from Finsbury Park.
The space is just minutes from the Andover Estate, which, Joe tells me, is a “hotspot” for knife crime.
“We do have hotspots across the borough,” he tells me.
“But we sweep parks in particular because that’s where people stash weapons.
“If you think about it, you wouldn’t want to get caught by one of us walking around with a knife. But you can know the places where they’re hidden.”
Joe’s team do sweeps two or three times a week, with two officers per ward assigned to carrying them out. They’ll also have specific weeks where there’s a knife crime focus, in which they’ll carry out daily sweeps. This week is one of them.
We split into smaller groups and start searching. Piles of autumn leaves make it harder to search, but also easier to stash a knife. We look round tree roots, in bushes, behind railings. There’s something eerie about running your hand along a child’s toy picnic bench, half expecting to find a deadly weapon.
About half an hour in, a volunteer finds something. Three knives are hidden close together, under some leaves next to a chain link fence.
There are two kitchen knives, about 20cm long and fairly unremarkable. The third is a survival knife, an officer tells me. Its blade is curved and black, with a hook on the end. It looks menacing, but I’m told it would only cost about £10 from a hardware store.
"In gangs, you have ‘boys’ and ‘men’. The men tend to give bigger weapons to the boys, because they won’t have criminal records yet."
The knives are taken away for forensics, and the search continues. After an hour, we’ve combed the entire area, and those knives, along with a metal pole, are the only findings.
“Some days we’ll have some real successes,” Joe says.
“It varies how many you find, especially with us doing daily searches.”
I ask him about some of the worst things he’s discovered.
“I once took a bayonet off a 13-year-old,” he tells me.
“In gangs, you have ‘boys’ and ‘men’.
“The men tend to give bigger weapons to the boys, because they won’t have criminal records yet.”
The idea of a 13-year-old feeling the need to carry a knife seems shocking, but that’s where Joe says they’re targeting next.
“We’re doing work with schools, and charities like the Ben Kinsella trust.
“The main age group for knife crime is 16- to 25-year-olds, so we want to focus on removing their desire to carry a knife.”
His comments chime with Sadiq Khan’s latest campaign. “London needs you alive: don’t carry a knife” was launched a few weeks ago, and works to reach young people with the help of grime musicians and bloggers to prevent knife crime.
But on a local scale, it’s groups like today’s that will make the more immediate difference.
“I like the idea of getting badges with the banner’s slogan on,” Valerie Flessati from the Justice and Peace group says.
“If we could make it so young people weren’t afraid to wear them, you’d see our message everywhere.”