Thursday 27 July 2017

Stop & Search or Stab & Bury?

I was given the opportunity to appear in a live studio debate on Knife Crime during the Channel 4 evening news programme on 27th July 2017.  They said it would be 7 or 8 minutes - a really long slot for TV news. I readily accepted, volunteering to waive the usual fee because it is a subject so important that I wanted the chance to explain some important points.

In the event, I met Sheldon Thomas and in the green room before we had a good chat; I think we were both surprised by how much we agreed upon.  The actual televised debate was, though, frustrating for me as there was a lady on the line from Birmingham whose contributions were so long that I got less than a minute to speak.  I had done quite a bit of preparation and yet was only able really to make one of the points I had up my sleeve - so I thought I would write this so as at least some people will get the chance to read what I wanted to have said:-

There is no doubt that enforcement is not the only way of tackling this scourge. Education, societal changes, family support all have an important role.  But they generally need funding which is not available and in any case are long-term solutions which, even if successful, will not address the acute problem we are facing.  So other tactics are needed to stop the carnage while the long-term action takes effect.  Re-education alone will never be enough.

An analogy can be found in drink-driving.  We accepted very nearly 50 years ago that it was a problem, it caused death and serious injury and we should try to reduce or eradicate it.  Re-education has, to a large degree, worked - it is seen now by most people as wrong, not just legally but socially.  However, at no time during the campaign to re-educate has enforcement of the law stopped; indeed, when the re-education campaign is stepped up so too, often, is the rate of enforcement.  Every Christmas most police forces mount additional anti-drink driving enforcement campaigns to coincide with the re-education / public information campaigns run seemingly annually by central Government.  And it works.

If it is accepted that reduction of dangerous, illegal and anti-social behaviour needs to be addressed by enforcement as well as education then it leads us, in the case of knife crime, to just one tactic - stop and search.  What other way is there - the ill we are trying to prevent is the carrying of knives in public places?  Since many knives are easily concealable on the person then detecting their possession on the streets can only be achieved by stop and search - there is no other practical and effective way.  This is why one of the few points I was able to make on C4 News is so important:

In the context of knife crime the phrase 'Stop and search' means enforcement of the anti-knife laws.  So when the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London said they aim to reduce Stop and Search they might as well have said they aim to reduce the enforcement of anti-knife laws - because that is exactly what their pronouncements mean.

Would increased enforcement reduce stabbing?  Well, I disagreed with Sheldon Thomas when he said there is no correlation (but never got a chance to say so).  All the information I have seen shows that as Stop and Search has decreased since 2010 so stabbings have increased.   The intuitive correlation which seems sensible and logical is borne out by the numbers. So the next question to be addressed is why Stop and Search has declined.

Like so many features of 21st-century life in the UK, difficult issues can be clouded by awkwardness whenever race is - or is perceived to be - a factor.  Not only does it stifle debate but it also causes many to adopt deeply entrenched positions which skews objective thinking.  My view is that knife crime is an issue for all of society, it is a criminal problem not a racial problem.  Sheldon made a very valid point to me while we were chatting - criminal gangs are the ultimate equal opportunity employers, they really don't care who you are so long as they can trust you and you get the job done.  Equally therefore we can assume that they are similarly non-discriminatory about who they choose to stab - gang-related violence is just that, not a hate crime, not racially-motivated, just gangsterism plain and simple.  Interesting though wasn't it that Channel 4 news chose two black contributors to take part in the debate.  Do they, even subconsciously, support the proposition that it is a black problem?

But, and it is a big but, there is an obvious perception that Stop and Search is a tactic which has been abused to the disadvantage of the black community.  I understand this and I am neither so naive nor so blinkered as to refute this out of hand.  I don't believe abuse of the power is anything like as widespread as some suggest but equally am sure that it happens.  I tried to get some idea of how often by a little research.  My starting point was that if unlawful Stop and Search happened there would be no shortage of lawyers willing to take cases to court and thereafter no shortage of journalists happy to tell us all about it.  In the event it seems difficult to find reports of more than a handful of cases.  It is probably an area which merits greater and proper research - if anyone knows of where I can find some then I'd be grateful for a signpost.

One must assume that the motivation for politicians to pledge to reduce Stop and Search is to reduce or eliminate the friction between communities and the police caused by the tactic.  I understand and recognise the aim.  It is a reasonable position to take but like many difficult choices it requires a compromise, one which becomes stark and almost insoluble when you replace the words 'Stop and Search' with 'enforcing anti-knife laws'.  Because then the question is do we reduce the friction and aim for better relationships between police and communities and accept that, as a result, some of the young members of those communities will suffer wounding or death, or do we try to reduce the carrying and use of knives and accept that, as a result, some members of the communities will feel resentment towards the police and that they are being unfairly targeted?  I go for the latter, my simple reason being that at least they will be alive and have the opportunity to feel resentment.

Due to the focus of my police career I spent many more hours talking to parents and friends of stabbing victims than I did to people alleging unfair treatment, so perhaps I have the bias of my experiences to contend with.  What I know for sure is that every one of those mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers would have given anything for the stabber to have been stopped and searched before he got to their loved one.

Sadly, it is now not just a question of an edict from on high going out to say - "Enforce the knife laws".  Stop and search requires not only the political will and leadership to make it happen, it requires officers to do it.  The first word I said on C4 news, replying to the question "what does it need?" was "Money".  By that I meant public money, to fund the diversion schemes, the family support, the re-education programmes which are needed - but also, to deal with the acute crisis, to fund policing in a way which allows enforcement.  Even if police were not discouraged by their leaders from using their powers to stop and search they need to find the time for it.  Patrolling officers are now far fewer in number than they were even five years ago; half as many as I knew when I was last a uniform officer in 1992.  And yet the demands upon them have soared.  Those that remain blue light from call to call almost constantly.  They now have to spend much time getting to their patch from distant patrol bases and then travelling to and from distant custody centres if they arrest (both new wastes of their time caused by the need to sell off valuable police stations to deal with decreased budgets). Then there is the time they spend dealing with increased bureaucracy and in dealing with the gaps caused by the reduced operational hours of other agengies dealing with mental health, social work and housing (cuts hitting home again) and they simply do not have the time for much proactivity. It is amazing really that they manage to find the knives they do.

Reinstating enforcement of anti-knife laws is hardly a knee-jerk.  It needs no new legislation, no greater powers, no longer sentences.  The law is all in place - the offence of carrying the knife since 1953 and the power to search since 1986.  It simply needs the will to use existing legislation and the numbers to do it.  What would help would be a significant number of the most vocal in the community to accept that more Stop and Search is preferable to more Stab and Bury.  Would it work in the short-term?  I think yes.  How many people deliberately carry a knife if they are about to board a flight, or to enter a court building?  Very very few, because they know they will be searched and they will at best have it confiscated and at worse find themselves arrested.  Our aim should be that the likelihood of your knife being discovered on the High Street is also so great that the risk isn't worth it.

Wednesday 26 July 2017

My advice

There is lots of reflection on policing and police at the moment so I thought it might be time to share the email I wrote to my son a few years ago as he embarked on his police career:

As you become the fourth in five generations to join the Met, these are slightly updated versions of the rules I was given by my own father and his colleagues in 1981, with one or two additions from my experience.  

 I am proud you have made this choice to serve, entirely of your own volition. Keep safe, watch your back and watch out for your colleagues.  In every sense of the phrase. 

I hope you will grow as a man and as a human being to the same extent that I did in The Job. And have as much fun, so that, whenever you finish your time, just like me you will be satisfied that you have done some good and wish you could do it all over again. 

You will see and hear the phrase TJF. The Job's F***ed.  By my standards of 1981 it is, but by my Dad's standards of 1956 it was when I joined. If you could go back over each generation all would say the same.  But you must take as you find - and you will probably just  find that, compared to what we knew, TJD - The Job's Different.

 Anyway, the rules: 

RULE 1 - THE GOLDEN, UNBREAKABLE IN ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, RULE.  You have a warrant card in your pocket. It was hard work getting it.  You only ever give it up when you are ready to, so everything you do on or off duty has to be incapable of allowing anybody to take it from you. 

Rule 2 - Your warrant card sets you apart.  It gives you power but also imposes duties. You act as necessary in circumstances where most people do nothing. Be proud of that. 

Rule 3 - You are joining a new family.  It is a large one with members across the country and indeed the world.  Like all families, there are falling outs.  Some members will irritate you, upset you and occasionally let you down.  You will have to learn which ones you trust and which you can't.  But also like all families, when the chips are down they are there for each other. They will be for you and you for them - always bearing in mind Rule 1. 

Rule 4 - Take each and every training opportunity offered to you. You never know when having that skill will make the difference between getting to do something you really need to, or being somewhere you really want to be.   

Rule 5  - You must be respectful to rank and seniority - despite the best efforts of some, it is still a disciplined service.  But it is entirely possible to be questioning in a respectful manner. Decent senior officers will show respect back to a junior who politely but reasonably argues their corner. Even if they disagree and you lose. 

Rule 6 - Aspiration to roles and ranks is fine, but the whole organisation works best when everybody at every level does their best. The pride is in being an officer, whatever the rank or role you hold. You will find your niche one day, it might take two years it might take twenty. Nobody has anything but respect for somebody who finds it and stays, excelling in it - no matter what they wear on their shoulder. It isn't a competition with your friends (or family!) 

Rule 7 - You will see the best and worst of human nature.  You will see sadness and joy.  You will go places and see things that most people will never be aware exist, let alone witness.  Keep smiling if you can, if not then talk about it. 

Rule 8 - Cock ups are understandable, covering them up isn't.  Put another way, to err is human, to hide it is criminal. See Rule 1. 

Rule 9 - 
You see policing every day, the member of the public you talk to might experience it once a decade. Make sure they tell their friends how good it was.

Rule 10 - 
The unofficial Met mantra must always be borne in mind - "If you can't take a joke you shouldn't join the Job".

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Madeleine McCann and Operation Grange

At the outset I should say that I don't know what happened to Madeleine McCann.  All the evidence available to me – and there is more and deeper information available to the public on this than any case I have looked at – does not convince me of any theory or scenario being proved.  Soon, in the coming months when my other projects are less busy, I hope to take a proper analytical look at it all and come up with some conclusions.  But as things stand my position is that I don't know.

Having said all that, there are aspects of the case which trouble me already and the main one is what the Metropolitan Police set out to do in Operation Grange.  My brush with that investigation – and I call it that because I was never actually involved with it – has been the subject of a fair bit of comment, embellishment and misunderstanding.  So it is right I think that I set out clearly what happened and what did not.

On Sunday 9th May 2010 the News of the World published a story which suggested that the Met was going to reinvestigate Madeleine’s disappearance and that I would be asked to lead it.  This was news to me on both counts. Nobody from the Met had, or indeed ever did, make such a request of me.

The only official news I heard about the reinvestigation was a week or two later when I heard that the idea of such a reinvestigation had been shelved for the time being in the wake of the change of Government. You will recall the note by former Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne, apologising to his successor that there was no money left. The rumour in the Met was that, unless and until the Government were prepared to fund it, we would not undertake such an expensive operation which, as desirable as it might have been, was not really something on which Londoners should see their Council Tax spent.

However, before this, just a few days after the NotW story I did receive a call from a senior officer in the Met whom I knew quite well.  This officer told me I would do better to avoid the McCann investigation if it did happen, because "You wouldn't be happy leading an investigation where you were told what you could look at and what you could not".

That is the totality of the advice I received. It was made clear that this was an ‘unofficial’ call and that it was made in my interest – so that I might not end up taking on a task which would ultimately frustrate me.  As such I never pressed the caller for more information, nor will I ever be in a position to disclose who the officer was.

I was familiar enough with the reporting of the McCann case in the media to understand that there was a widespread reluctance to talk of any scenario which did not involve an abduction and in which no blame or complicity was to be attributed to the parents and their friends.  This struck me as odd but, in those days, quite frankly I was busy enough with he investigations I was involved in without undertaking any 'off the books' look at what had gone on in Praia de Luz.  I had assumed that there was good reason for this; that those who had been involved had satisfied themselves that was the case.

I retired after 30 years service in early 2011.  At the time I retired there had been no decision made to mount the Met operation.  As I embarked upon a new career writing and commenting I looked at the case a little, sufficiently enough to provide sensible assistance to the media when they asked me.  This was, though, always around police procedures and techniques.  Nobody ever asked me what I thought might have happened, only what the police were doing, why and what they might do next.

Last year Sky asked me to a meeting to discuss what a ten-year anniversary film might achieve.  I explained that I would be willing to take part but that my position was one where I was as sceptical of the accepted (abduction) theory as I was of any other. I said I would also like to make the point that Operation Grange was so restricted from the start as to be destined to fail.  In support of this I presented the original Grange terms of reference and told them of the advice I had received in the phone call.

To their credit (and, actually, to my surprise) they accepted that this was a valid point of view to hold and one which should be presented in their film.  Within the limitations and constraints of legal matters, the editing process and the need to present a rounded story, I think the Sky film was pretty good.  It is certainly the most balanced mainstream report I have seen and one with which I am entirely happy to be associated.  I also think it represented my views well.

I am neither an anti nor a pro – of the McCanns or the media or the police.  I felt, feel indeed, that the limitations which seem to have been imposed on Operation Grange were worthy of being publicised and would inform the debate.  I am not necessarily advocating that it be started afresh, just that it is understood what it was and what it tried to do.

I do though think that a point worthy of reinforcing is that a proper, conclusive and reasoned elimination or implication of Kate and Gerry McCann would have been in everyone's interest, most of all theirs.  That would have been my first objective had I been leading Operation Grange and so that is the biggest issue I have with how that investigation proceeded.  To eliminate or implicate those closest to the child in this type of case is not only the documented best investigative practice but is common sense.  Had Grange done this then everything would be a lot clearer. I have no idea why this was not done but I am satisfied on what has been said by the Met and what is available that it was not.

I want to continue to raise and discuss issues around Madeleine’s disappearance when it is appropriate to do so.  I am mindful that, to maintain credibility and access to meaningful platforms that I will need to do so in a considered, reasoned and evidenced way. If I don't offer support to theories and assumptions it doesn't mean I don't understand or believe them, just that I don't think it is appropriate to adopt them or comment upon them at the moment.

Finally a paragraph on me. I am nowhere near na├»ve enough to have thought that I could become involved in this debate without suffering some abuse and denigration. While it is water from a duck’s back I won't expose myself to it unnecessarily.  Hence I won't take part in discussions on the various forums and I am likely to block those on Twitter who can’t be reasonable and polite.  Like us all I am far from perfect but I did give many years of service to the community – as do thousands of others – and during that time I was lucky enough to achieve some results of which I will always be proud. My expertise and reputation is well-regarded by the media and I have no need to raise my profile; I turn away as much media work as I accept.  I am not writing a book on Madeleine McCann and I have no motivation other than that which has been with me for many, many years – to get to the truth.  So I will continue to tweet about the case ( @colinsutton ) and when people raise good questions I will try to respond quickly.