Police and politicians' response to violent crime risks being counter-productive
The tragedy of young deaths on Britain’s streets demands a meaningful response, but politicians and police chiefs are dredging up ominous and discriminatory tactics in the scrabble for solutions.
Stop and search: haemorrhaging trust
In recent months, both the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and London’s Mayor have suggested increasing the use of stop and search may provide an answer to rising knife crime. But the sad irony is that years of discriminatory stops have haemorrhaged community trust, undermining operational policing.
While the use of stop and search has dropped significantly in recent years, racial disparities are growing. If you’re black, you’re eight times more likely to be stopped by police than if you’re white. This grows to 14 times when it comes to a power to stop and search without suspicion.
And stops aren’t targeted at priority crime. The most common use of the power is for drugs – mostly low level possession. And according to police watchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, drug searches of black people may be based on weaker grounds of suspicion.
As Janet Hills, Chair of the Met Black Police Association, has pointed out, among those alienated by ill-targeted stops are people who could provide evidence to the police or act as witnesses.
Police-community relations are central to the fight against violent crime. Police and politicians should be tackling racial disparity in stop and search – not blindly increasing its use.
Yesterday’s Home Office Serious Violence Strategy suggested ministers are considering ominous new arrangements for sharing and processing data. Information sharing is an important part of intelligence-led policing, but the Government is heralding a new Law Enforcement Data Service at the same time as pushing through a Data Protection Bill that erodes protections around the automated processing of data for law enforcement purposes. The Bill also removes people’s right to restrict or object to their personal information being processed to prevent or detect crime.
To understand how seemingly defensible databases can go wrong, we need only look at the Met’s Gangs Matrix – an intelligence system built in the wake of the 2011 London riots, listing the names of suspected gang members.
Little is known about how and why people are added to the Matrix, but its disproportionality is stark. Data for 2016 suggests that BAME people make up some 87 per cent of those on the database, with black men accounting for 78 per cent. And the repercussions are serious, with the Matrix being used in stop and search and joint enterprise prosecutions.
In recent weeks the Met Commissioner has suggested that social media facilitates violent crime and the Home Office yesterday confirmed that it would be working with social media platforms to implement ill-defined preventative measures.
This isn’t the first time a government has hinted at a crackdown on social media in a knee-jerk reaction to violent crime. In the aftermath of the 2011 riots, then Prime Minister David Cameron threatened new powers allowing police to curtail social media use.
A focus on social media crackdowns is reminiscent of the law and order responses of autocratic states but – more than that – it’s a distraction.
The devastating deaths of young people must be addressed – but only a response that has the input and consent of affected communities will improve policing outcomes in the long-run. Politicians and police chiefs should be reaching out to affected communities and listening to their concerns – not rolling out potentially counter-productive policies without considering the consequences.