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.

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