Image: London Mayor Sadiq Khan with police officers in Southwark. Stefan Rousseau/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Sadiq Khan’s pledge last week to combat knife crime in the capital by increasing stop and search won’t work. It will only leave Londoners over-policed and under-protected. The tactic typically targets black and minority communities, damaging relations that are vital to intelligence gathering and fuelling the kind of frustration that leads to unrest.
By promising more “intelligence-led” searches, Khan has reversed his pre-election commitment to decrease the practice. This is a knee-jerk reaction to a week of political criticism following a spike in stabbings and four New Year’s Eve deaths in the capital.
The evidence shows stop and search is not effective. A 2016 Home Office study evaluating the increase of weapon stop-searches in London under Operational Blunt II in 2008/09, found that “there was no discernible crime-reducing effect from a large surge in stop and search activity at the borough level during the operation.”
In New York City, use of stop-frisk has fallen by 98 per cent, to 12,000 searches in 2016. And the murder rate is at an all-time low. Police there have praised advanced analytics for helping them control violent crime and admitted that the department had previously “overused and sometimes misused” stop-frisk.
Even the UK College of Policing have conceded that extremely large increases in stop and search would, at best, deliver modest reductions in crime. In relation to violent crime, they found that weapon searches had a negligible impact, estimating that, “if weapon searches were 10 per cent higher in week one, violent crime would have been 0.01 per cent lower in week two”.
It’s true that in recent years there has been a welcome decline in the overall number of stop-searches. Yet there is no evidence to prove this is related to the increase in stabbings. There are many factors at play here. In London, local police stations are closing and there are fewer visible local police officers. Those that remain are stretched too thin to spend time gaining the trust and confidence of the local community – which is key to gathering the intelligence required to fight violent crime.
In both 2016 and 2017, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) warned that neighbourhood policing was being undermined and that this would likely negatively affect police forces’ ability to undertake the vital proactive and preventative aspects of fighting crime.
So while Khan caveats his promise with the guarantee that stop-searches need to be “intelligence-led,” without local police officers, where will this intelligence come from? Not only have reductions in neighbourhood policing harmed community-police relations, years of over-policing of black and minority communities have already obliterated their trust and confidence in police officers.
Kwabena Oduro-Ayim, a young black accountancy student from Tottenham, perfectly illustrated the counterproductive nature of stop-search when I interviewed him for a 2013 report.
“If you’re a child and you go to play football and the police officer stops and searches you… if you experience that from age 8, all through your secondary school career, you’re not going to have a positive view of the police. You will not invest faith in the police if something happens to you. You feel you have to take the law into your own hands. Being stopped three times in a day, that’s criminalising people who are already in an environment where it is extremely easy to slip into crime anyway. You don’t want to give them a motive to engage in crime.”
Unlike the effectiveness of stop and search, the costs of the practice are significant and well documented. Stop-search, particularly when done badly, damages police/community relations, reduces public trust and confidence, discourages cooperation, and, ultimately, undermines the legitimacy of the police.
A supposed panacea to all these problems, body-worn video cameras, do little to address concerns. Beyond the increasing concerns about the limited or one-sided images that are captured and limited evidence that it changes police officer behaviour, body worn cameras only capture attitudes and behaviour in isolated search instances. They do nothing to address proportionality and unequal impact on different communities.
Stop and search imposes a double burden on black communities, criminalising already marginalised communities, while doing little – if anything – to protect them. For Khan and senior police officers to maintain that stop and search is effective, despite the evidence, offers a false sense of security and does a disservice to the communities they serve. Increasing stop search activity will focus considerable resources that could be better used on other activities, while hurting those most in need.
Shame on you Sadiq Khan, London deserves better.