I’m going to assume, for the purposes of argument, that you are not, in principle, in favour of killing children.
I’m also going to assume, for the same reason, that you don’t think stealing a mobile phone or a handbag should be punishable by death.
So I wonder what you make of the Metropolitan Police’s newly revealed tactic of deliberately knocking moped-mounted muggers, some of whom are in their early or mid-teens, off their bikes.
The Met say that so far this year, they have used the tactic sixty-three times and that none of the suspects has been seriously hurt as a result. It is not unreasonable, however, to assume that one day, someone will die. Bear in mind that in 2016, police pursuits led to the deaths of 28 people, most of whom were innocent bystanders.
The Met also say that the tactic works and that the number of thefts from mopeds has dropped by more than a third. According to a report in The Times, however, “Much of the reduction in moped-enabled crime is linked to the force’s drive to stop thefts of mopeds and catch the thieves by using forensic marking techniques and raising awareness among owners”.
Perhaps I need to spell something out here: there is a real, urgent crime problem, in London as elsewhere, especially among teenagers and young men, and the police are faced with a genuinely complex set of challenges. Knife crime is a particular issue – in England and Wales as a whole, the number of young people killed in knife attacks this year looks set to become the highest for ten years, and the fourth worst on record.
But simple solutions are rarely the answer, even when law enforcement officials insist that they are effective. I’m sure that prosecutors in Saudi Arabia would argue that chopping off the hands of thieves reduces the numbers of thefts in that country – and that their counterparts in China would similarly argue that shooting corrupt local government officials in the back of the head reduces corruption. Even so, I very much doubt that the Met would be tempted to follow their example.
Chasing miscreants on mopeds along crowded city streets is a highly dangerous activity, even if, as the Met insist, the only officers involved in such pursuits are specially trained and will always attempt to slow down a suspect before ‘nudging’ him off his bike. (If you want to see what ‘nudging’ looks like, by the way, there’s a helpful police video here.)
And there seems to be some doubt as to whether the tactic is even legal. The Police Federation, for example, which backs the policy, says it clearly breaches current legislation. ‘Judged against the common standard, as police officers are, it is dangerous to drive a car deliberately at another road user. The law classifies this as dangerous driving, and officers could be prosecuted.’
The home secretary, Sajid Javid, doesn’t seem to be too bothered about such niceties. His view is that “risk-assessed tactical contact is exactly what we need. Criminals are not above the law”.
Wouldn’t George Orwell have loved “risk-assessed tactical contact”? I’m going to add it to my dictionary of euphemisms, along with ‘collateral damage’ and ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’. And as for ‘criminals are not above the law’ – well, er, no, they’re not, obviously, otherwise they wouldn’t be criminals, would they…
Diane Abbott, on the other hand, got it exactly right: “Knocking people off bikes is potentially very dangerous. It shouldn’t be legal for anyone. Police are not above the law”.
Politicians know that you never lose votes by promising tougher action against criminals. And the police know that juries very rarely convict officers who are alleged to have exceeded their lawful powers. So both Sajid Javid and Scotland Yard are probably right to think that few voters will object. That doesn’t mean, however, that their policy is right.
There are nearly always better, safer and more effective ways to tackle crime than by focusing only on criminals. Take car thefts, for example: in 2002-3, more than 300,000 vehicles were reported stolen – by 2017-2018, the number was down by two-thirds, to just over 100,000. (It was even lower three years ago.) Why? Because car makers worked out how to make it much more difficult to steal cars.
So perhaps moped manufacturers should do the same. It would be a lot less dangerous than encouraging police officers to deliberately knock teenage thieves off their bikes.