London Acid Attacks Highlight Growing Problem In Britain
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
And now to Britain where there is growing concern about acid attacks. Two teenage boys were arrested today, accused of splashing acid into people's faces in five separate attacks last night across northeast London. NPR's Lauren Frayer joins us from the British capital. Hi, Lauren.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So now there has been a second arrest. Tell us who the suspects are and what they're accused of doing.
FRAYER: They are two teenage boys, aged 15 and 16. And they're accused of pulling up alongside a takeout food delivery man in traffic late last night and splashing or squirting some sort of corrosive acid in his face and then trying to steal the moped he was on. So police say the motive was robbery. Bystanders recorded some cell phone video of that first victim struggling to keep his eyes open as police poured bottled water over his face to try to clean off the acid.
The suspects sped away. And for the next hour and a half, they did the exact same thing in four other spots across northeast London. One of the victims has life-changing injuries to his face, police say. There was an arrest early this morning, another arrest this afternoon. British television news is airing tips to the public like how to protect yourself against this, how to douse your face with water if it happens to you. So it's all pretty scary.
SHAPIRO: So with widespread tips to the public on how to avoid this, it doesn't sound like this is an isolated incident.
FRAYER: It's not. Acid attacks are a fraction of knife attacks in London, but they are getting more common. We had 20 people injured in an acid attack in a London nightclub back in April. Two people in that case were left partially blind. Police say there have been about 500 acid attacks across the U.K. in a little bit more than the past year. So that's double what it was just five years ago. And here's the head of the Metropolitan Police in London, Cressida Dick.
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CRESSIDA DICK: The acid can cause horrendous injuries. The ones last night involved robberies we believe are linked. And I don't want people to think that this is happening all over London all of the time. It's really not. But we are concerned because the numbers appear to be going up.
FRAYER: So you hear her say the numbers are going up. And authorities are looking into why. Some of the attacks have been sort of cases of spurned lovers, people who know each other, some serious family feuds. But it looks increasingly like these attacks are crossing over into gangs.
Keep in mind that guns are really rare in Britain, and knife crime is much more common. And as police crack down on knife possession - you know, if you're a gang member, a lot of these acids are sold over the counter. They're legal substances, household items. You know, bleach and ammonia have been used in some of these attacks. So it's a weapon that's easy to buy, easy to conceal. Like, you can carry it in a soda bottle, for example.
SHAPIRO: And it sounds like it's hard to protect yourself against attacks like this. What are authorities saying?
FRAYER: Well, British parliament had already scheduled a hearing on Monday about these kinds of attacks. Lawmakers are going to debate possibly, you know, limiting the type and quantity of acid that somebody can buy or carry with them on the street, maybe introduce a permit system, something like a background check system. There are no restrictions obviously on how many bottles of bleach you can buy. There are limits on other types of poisons, buying explosive liquids in bulk.
Most of these acid attacks have been in London, and about a third of them are in this very specific area of east London. And so the MP there is really concerned. And he says, look; unless you're a chemistry teacher or a lab technician, is there really any reason you should be allowed to carry sort of gallons of sulfuric acid?
There's another issue that may come up in Parliament, and that's criminal penalties. The suspects in last night's attacks were arrested for grievous bodily harm. That's the charge. And if you use a knife - if you're a gang member and you stab someone with a knife, that's attempted murder. So there have been calls for equal penalties for these acid attacks that disfigure people, you know, for life.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Lauren Frayer in London. Thanks a lot, Lauren.
FRAYER: You're welcome.
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