One week after the horrifying murder of Jaden Moodie in east London, and with the police still looking for five suspects, it is impossible to know why this 14-year-old was killed in the pitiless manner he was – rammed by a car while riding his scooter so that he fell off, then repeatedly stabbed by three assailants who got out of the car to attack him. Police have said they believe he was targeted, though victims of brutal crimes on city streets have included cases of mistaken identity. What we can say is that Jaden’s death occurs in a context whereby teenagers are increasingly being victimised by criminals.
Such targeting and exploitation take more than one form, and such extreme violence is thankfully unusual. Jaden was the youngest person to die in a street attack in the capital in more than a year. But coming at a time when the murder rate in England and Wales has risen sharply (719 homicides were committed in 2017-18, the highest number for a decade, with figures adjusted to exclude terrorist attacks), and police forces around the country are increasingly concerned about criminals preying on young people, Jaden’s death is alarming as well as deeply distressing.
Jaden’s relatives have strongly criticised media coverage, and denied that their boy with a “huge heart” was linked to gangs. The officer investigating warned that people are quick to leap to judgment.
Whatever lies behind this case, the upsurge of violence and carrying of weapons by men such as Jaden’s killers is a cause for concern, and a phenomenon that experts link to the criminal gangs that control drugs sales. Research commissioned by Waltham Forest council last year argued that such organisations have become more professional over the past decade, with a focus on profit taking the place of the territorial and postcode disputes of the past – although the latter have not gone away.
The use of children as junior salespeople and mules is increasingly recognised as one aspect of a business model that relies on making deals in areas beyond a gang’s home turf. Last year 32 out of 45 police forces reported an increase in violence they linked to networks known as “county lines”, after the phone lines used to place orders. Public as well as official awareness that such illegal businesses exist is growing. Last year’s conviction of Birmingham drug dealer Zakaria Mohammed was significant because he was charged with modern slavery as well as drugs offences, and sentenced not just for selling drugs but also for abusing the children he turned into dealers.
Last year one report made a comparison with sexual exploitation, and the time it took to recognise the grooming of vulnerable girls. Such patterns must not be repeated. If and when children are found to be involved with drugs or other organised criminal activity, and even if they don’t see themselves as victims, their vulnerability must not be disregarded. Children must be treated as children before they are treated as offenders.