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On Edge

2008 was the year of the knife

By Curtis Cartier

First there was Justin Zuk, a 26-year-old man stabbed to death Sept. 27 after a fight on Cedar Street in downtown Santa Cruz. Then, less than two weeks later, there was Robbie Reynolds, an 18-year-old stabbed and killed during a hotel room party at the Paradise Inn on Beach Hill. Two young men, dead in the streets, after someone decided that the only way to resolve their differences wasn't with words or even fists, but with a knife.

There have been others too. Like Leonardo Barajas, stabbed and killed Sept. 24 in Watsonville after one quick thrust to the torso. Or the 14-year-old unidentified minor who was walking home from school in a "quiet Watsonville neighborhood" when he was surrounded by four attackers and stabbed multiple times--and survived. These examples are merely skimming the surface of what is becoming a much larger trend where more and more young people are prepared to stab first and ask questions later.

"People carry knives for a lot of reasons," says University of Minnesota Criminology professor Bill Lewinski. "They are common, they're easily acquirable, there's no background checks, they're easy to conceal. The weapon of choice is always the handgun, but for the poor man, it's the knife."

Lewinski, studies what he calls "force psychology," which looks at the biological impulses involved in violent confrontations. Through his studies he says he's not only seeing the number of knives in the hands of young people increasing, but also the age of the perpetrators decreasing. According to the California Department of Justice, in 2007 there were 258 robberies and aggravated assaults in Santa Cruz County that involved a knife or cutting instrument. That's up from 220 in 2006 and 177 in 2005. These statistics also show that with 326 aggravated assaults involving fists, hands or feet in 2007 and 209 involving a knife or cutting instrument, two out of five serious assaults in Santa Cruz County involved someone getting stabbed.

Lewinski puts the blame in a lot of places. A lack of parenting, pop culture and poverty all play a role in the increase in violence, he says. People coming out of prison who can't purchase a gun due to their record can still carry knives, and the mentally ill and homeless who are forced to live on the street can almost always afford a small blade. But not everyone sees the same problem. At UCSC, criminology professor Hiroshi Fukurai says statistics are not to be trusted and that the increase in stabbings is merely an increase in reported stabbings. He contends the country is locked in a "police state," and more stabbings on paper are only the result of more cops on the street.

"I think only 30 to 40 percent of incidents are being reported, so you can't rely on statistics," he says. "There may be more stabbings but at the same time there is more emphasis on reporting from law enforcement. This creates fear and supports the police state like a vicious cycle. There is not more violence, we're just told there is more violence so we rely on law enforcement more and more. People need to be educated."

The answer of whether the increase in stabbing statistics is the result of more police to report the crimes or more criminals to commit them likely doesn't enter into the minds of the family of Zuk or Reynolds or Barajas. To them, no amount of analyzing data or hypothesizing its cause will bring back their sons.

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