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Acid attacks: Top cop calls for sale of strong acids to be licensed after surge in crime

PUBLISHED: 17:29 01 September 2017 | UPDATED: 12:32 02 September 2017

A police officer with the new acid attack response kit issued to response cars in Hackney last weekend. It contains water, safety goggles and gloves. PICTURE: Polly Hancock

A police officer with the new acid attack response kit issued to response cars in Hackney last weekend. It contains water, safety goggles and gloves. PICTURE: Polly Hancock

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The top cop in charge of tackling acid attacks in Hackney and across London this week called for the sale of strong acids to be licensed – and for tougher sentences for those carrying it.

Det Supt Mike West, the Metropolitan Police's lead on corrosive based crime, has called for new tougher licensing laws on sales of strong acids. PICTURE: Metropolitan Police Det Supt Mike West, the Metropolitan Police's lead on corrosive based crime, has called for new tougher licensing laws on sales of strong acids. PICTURE: Metropolitan Police

Det Supt Mike West said the rollout of 1,000 “acid response kits” to help treat victims mean the force is better equipped than it was two months ago – and said on-the-spot testing kits to help officers identify corrosive acids could be issued by the end of the year.

It comes after the Gazette was able to buy 96 per cent proof sulphuric acid online with no age checks. When contacted, its manufacturer said the product would be discontinued.

Det Supt West said the horrific maiming and disfigurement of victims has left the force determined to take a tough stance.

“The issue is literally being taken as seriously as knife crime and gun crime,” he said. “And it will be until we see that we’re making an impact - not only on numbers, but in the wider sense of tackling the root causes.”

Police figures show a chilling escalation of acid crime in the capital since 2015. The epicentre was in the east London boroughs of Newham, Barking and Dagenham, and Tower Hamlets.

While the 21 attacks in Hackney in 2016 was relatively low compared to these boroughs, the statistics still show a notable rise in acid crime in the borough since 2015.

Criminologist and specialist in gangs at Middlesex University Dr Simon Harding says understanding this escalation has become a “golden ticket” for those tasked with reducing acid crime.

“Something’s going on in east London and it’s simply not clear what it is,” he said. “I suspect it’s a form of neighbourhood escalation, whereby acid started to be used by one group or gang against rivals. Then they began to adopt and use it in retaliation, and then it just grows.”

The new acid response kits will be carried by police response cars in Hackney. PICTURE: Polly Hancock The new acid response kits will be carried by police response cars in Hackney. PICTURE: Polly Hancock

Asked why acid has become a weapon of choice, Det Supt West said it was “easily accessible, very cheap to buy” and it was “an easy option to weaponise and hide it from police”.

Dr Harding believes acid is being used as a psychological weapon by street gangs to exert control and fear.

But the Met chief said only 5 per cent of London’s acid attacks relate to inter-gang violence.

Offences involving robberies, such as the 90-minute rampage of attacks on moped drivers in Islington, Hackney and Stratford in July, are more typical, making up a quarter of all incidents.

Dr Simon Harding, criminologist at Middlesex University. PICTURE: Dr Simon Harding Dr Simon Harding, criminologist at Middlesex University. PICTURE: Dr Simon Harding

The Met is ramping up action to try and stem the surge in attacks. Guidelines issued by the Crown Prosecution Service last month have given police “extra teeth” to arrest those found carrying suspected noxious substances in drinks bottles.

Forensic work is also under way to improve seizure of evidence, lab tests are being fast-tracked, and the response kits containing large bottles of water, goggles and gloves were issued to police response cars across London at the end of August.

Police tech experts are also working to develop a street testing kit to identify acids on-the-spot, which could potentially be given to officers by the end of the year.

“It’s not as simple as just dipping in a piece of pH paper, because that can throw up all sorts of false positives,” explained Det Supt West. “So Coca-Cola would give a reading, for example, as would orange juice. So we need to be a bit smarter.”

This t-shirt was badly scorched and burned and completely dissolved in places when strong acid drain unblocker was poured on it. PICTURE: ARCHANT This t-shirt was badly scorched and burned and completely dissolved in places when strong acid drain unblocker was poured on it. PICTURE: ARCHANT

Asked whether he was confident the Met has the tools it needs to tackle acid crime, Det Supt West said: “I think we’re definitely in a better position than we were eight weeks ago.”

But he called for the sale of strong acid to be licensed and tougher sentences for those who carry it. The Met chief wants age restrictions on household cleaning products so they are less easily available to those seeking to use them to harm.

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PANEL: ‘The criminal justice system is failing victims and families’

Jermaine Lawlor, founder of Voice 4 Youth Against Violence. PICTURE: Supplied by Jermaine Lawlor Jermaine Lawlor, founder of Voice 4 Youth Against Violence. PICTURE: Supplied by Jermaine Lawlor

Acid has become a weapon of choice for young people because it is cheap and easy to obtain, and the penalties for carrying it are less severe than knife crime.

That’s the view of Jermaine Lawlor, who has worked with perpetrators of acid attacks through his youth mentoring organisation Voice 4 Youth Against Violence.

“Criminals are obviously ahead of the game and have realised that the criminal justice system is actually failing these families and victims, because you receive less of a custodial sentence than you would for carrying a knife,” said the youth mentor, who lives in east London.

He says a culture of “no snitching” is also allowing perpetrators to get away with hideous crimes.

Islington Council is trying to control sales of corrosive substances in the borough's shops. Picture: Ramzy Alwakeel Islington Council is trying to control sales of corrosive substances in the borough's shops. Picture: Ramzy Alwakeel

Prosecutions on offences involving corrosive substances are notably low.

Only 32 per cent of the 59 cases in Hackney investigated by police since 2010 have resulted in charges.

In 7 per cent of cases a suspect was identified but the victim did not support prosecution.

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A police officer with the new acid attack response kit issued to response cars in Camden and Haringey last weekend. PICTURE: Polly Hancock A police officer with the new acid attack response kit issued to response cars in Camden and Haringey last weekend. PICTURE: Polly Hancock

What can be done to tackle acid crime?

Experts the Gazette spoke to said:

* Introduce new licensing laws to restrict sales of strong acids

* Bring in tougher sentences for those convicted of acid crimes, in line with those for knife crime

* Make it an offence to carry acid without a good reason, similar to rules around knives

* Set up education programmes through schools and youth offending teams

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What to do if you witness an acid attack?

NHS burns specialists have given the following advice on how to provide first aid after an acid attack.

1. Report: Call 999 immediately.

2. Remove: Contaminated clothing should be carefully removed.

3. Rinse: Affected skin should be rinsed in water until help arrives.

All the advice suggests taking early action can make a vital difference to the chances of recovery.

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