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Stop and search doesn't solve knife crime, so why not try something new?

Stop and Search is to modern policing what bloodletting was to ancient medicine - ineffective, but clung to.

Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images, all rights reserved.

Stop and Search is to modern policing what bloodletting was to ancient medicine. An ineffective ‘cure’, which, in the absence of alternatives, gets tried again and again, despite its propensity to make the situation worse. Each failure causes its proponents to double down and call for more.

This week a sixteen year old boy was killed in Tulse Hill, the fifth in six days, bringing the total number of homicides in London to 119 this year. In response, calls for increased stop and search have become strident. The response from politicians and police has been at best confused.  

As a recent report from police reform campaign StopWatch, drugs charity Release and the LSE has demonstrated, stop and search remains wildly disproportionate, ill-targeted and harmful. Despite a drastic reduction in total levels of stop and search: which have plummeted 75% between 2010/11 and 2016/17, black people were stopped at eight times the rate of white people in 2016/17.

And despite continual concern raised about the prevalence of knife crime, the overwhelming majority of stops were for suspicion of low-level drug offences. Two thirds of all searches were for drugs in 2016/17. Black people were stopped and searched for drugs at nine times the rate of white people, despite the fact that self-reported drug use is lower within the black community than the white. The picture painted by these stats is one of ingrained, and persistent discrimination. Discrimination that harms community trust in the police while doing little to remove knives from the streets.

Evidence shows that stop and search is a blunt tool for tackling knife crime, and may even make things worse. We’ve known this since the early 2000s when a home office study published shortly after the Stephen Lawrence inquiry found it had “a small impact on the detection and prevention of crime” and provided “little solid evidence that searches have a deterrent effect”. Similar results were found in 2011 and 2016.

The good news is there are tested alternatives that lead to significant reductions in knife crime, and that that senior police leaders have shown an interest in them.

At the turn of the century, Scotland was the most violent country in the developed world and Glasgow had the highest murder rate in western Europe. Yet by 2017, of the 35 children and young people who were killed by knives, none were in Scotland.

Rather than insisting that knife crime could only be supressed by tough policing, the Scottish government funded the Violence Reduction Unit - a program which tackled knife crime as a public health issue. This meant taking a holistic approach, focusing on work, housing, education, and counselling. Young people at risk from knife crime were offered support that addressed a whole range of challenges that help to create a situation where they might turn to violence. In the early days the programme involved a heavy emphasis on stop and search, and threats of serious jail time if participants didn’t straighten up and fly right. However this was found to be ineffective and it was de-emphasised in later iterations.

In the US, the Boston Gun project achieved similar effects: known gang-members were presented with evidence of their crimes, and detailed explanations of the consequences of continuing, as well as incentives to stop offending: increased access to social services as well as education and job opportunities.

It is encouraging therefore, to learn that England’s most senior police officer Cressida Dick, Chief Inspector of the Met, has been on a fact-finding mission to Scotland to learn more. Not only that, but she seems to have come away with a more holistic view of policing. Recently, she highlighted the role of poverty in causing crime and the limits of policing if the wider drivers of criminality are ignored.

Or it would be encouraging, if Cressida Dick wasn’t calling for increased use of stop and search at the same time. In fact, we are still hearing the Met, the Mayor and others double down on stop and search.

StopWatch research and monitoring coalition recently released a report exposing the emotional and psychological trauma imposed by the London’s so called ‘Gangs Matrix’ in which innocent, mostly black men, are targeted for harassment and humiliation on a regular basis. The findings re-affirm the counter-productive nature of programs like stop and search.

The former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who left office expressing concern about the overuse of stop and search, called for the police to do more of it at the Conservative Party Conference. Earlier this autumn the current Mayor, who has already performed a few U-turns on the issue, called for violence to be treated as a public health issue and admitted that solutions won’t come overnight. It remains to be seen whether he can be pushed to follow through.

Those at the top know that stop and search is ineffective and counter-productive. They also know what an effective solution would look like. But faced with evidence that the treatment has failed, they still cannot bring themselves to abandon it entirely and try a genuine cure.

Tackling knife crime will be hard, and it may not ever be completely achieved. But surely we owe it to generations of young people who grow up in its shadow to make a serious, committed and clear-eyed attempt? That starts with doing what really works – not what’s failed before and continues to fail now.

About the author

Kam Gill is a policy officer at the Trades Union Congress. He has previously worked for the Electoral Commission and at the race equality think tank The Runnymede Trust. He also works with the police monitoring coalition StopWatch.

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