NEWS
05/04/2018 11:54 BST | Updated 05/04/2018 15:31 BST

Why Simply Increasing Stop And Search Won’t Stop London’s Violent Crime Wave

'The biggest predictor of violent crime, of any crime, is poverty.'

In just four days, two teenagers have been shot dead and two people have been stabbed to death on the streets of London, a shocking rise in deadly violence in the UK’s capital that has thrust a spotlight on policing and the use of “stop and search” powers.

Speaking in the wake of a wave of attacks, community members have said they would be open to increasing the use of stop and search in the wake of the violence, while media reports have been critical of the reduction in the use of the powers in recent years. 

On Thursday afternoon, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said he was “angered and heartbroken by the recent violent deaths on our streets” and ”[police] patrols have already been increased and extra stop-and-search powers are in place”.

But the effectiveness of the controversial practice is still a subject of debate, with many experts saying an increase in stop and search powers would not help to curb violence, and could instead hamper intelligence gathering and further alienate at-risk communities and groups.

So just how effective is stop and search? And what are the other options available for tackling the rise in knife and gun crime?  

The Issue

So far in 2018, 50 murders are being investigated by Scotland Yard – a sharp spike in attacks that has drawn comparisons to American cities, with the media claiming London’s murder rate has overtaken New York. 

Now we’re doing major life-saving cases on a daily basis Martin Griffiths, trauma surgeon at St Barts Hospital

Martin Griffiths, trauma surgeon at St Barts Hospital, told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme on Thursday that the number of people being treated for gun and knife injuries at his hospital has skyrocketed.

“Now we’re doing major life-saving cases on a daily basis,” he said, describing children in school uniform being admitted into emergency departments with gun and knife wounds.

“Some of my military colleagues have described being at the practice here to being at [camp] Bastion [in Afghanistan],” he added. 

Tottenham MP David Lammy described the violence as he had ever seen. “I’ve had as many knife attacks as there have been weeks in the year,” Lammy said. “There is absolutely no sign... of a reduction in the violence.”

The Claims About Stop & Search

According to The Sun:

Yes, we need harsher sentences for gang leaders and a crackdown on social media sites glamorising life as a foot-soldier. But we are also reaping the whirlwind of politically correct policing.

The radical cut in stop-and-search, once a vital tool against knife possession, was a disaster. The woeful Bernard Hogan-Howe at the Met, and the even worse Alison Saunders at the CPS, were obsessed by political agendas instead of reducing crime and saving lives.

According to The Telegraph:

Mr (Sadiq) Khan is hamstrung by the countervailing strategies that nowadays afflict all politicians for whom virtue signalling is more important than dealing with the realities before them.

Limiting stop and search – a policy also supported by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary – has proved to be a mistake. Cressida Dick, the Met commissioner, has said the fall in stop and search has contributed to the rise in stabbings and has vowed to increase the practice. Yet the police still feel constrained from doing so.

Mr Khan has said that stop and search needs to be “intelligence led”, which is just ducking the issue. 

The Reality On The Ground

The New York Comparison

In the wake of the attacks this week, comparisons were drawn between London’s murder rate and that of New York, with some claiming that the British capital had overtaken the US city for the first time in modern history.

But Dr Zubaida Haque, research associate at The Runnymede Trust, an independent think tank on race equality, said that using New York as a contrast isn’t comparing “like for like”, as it discounts the social framework US law enforcement works in, as well as the criminal justice system, which varies widely from the UK.

“The only measurement that we were comparing New York with here was the timeframe and that’s a bit ludicrous.

“Two or three months could be a blip but no-one is asking what variables are being compared,” Haque said.

But when comparing the two cities’ murder rates, the evidence from New York suggests stop and search powers don’t help to reduce killings.

The Washington Post has reported overall levels of crime have fallen in New York alongside the number of stop and frisks:

Crime in New York declined quickly after 1990 and has generally stayed low. There was a brief uptick last year at the same time as a further drop in the stop-and-frisk count, but in four of the past five years, levels of crime fell alongside the number of stop-and-frisks. Supporters of the policy often point specifically to gun crimes as a rationale for its use (since the policy often aimed at finding illegal firearms on suspects), but 2016 saw the fewest shootings during the first six months of the year in decades.

This was also backed by BBC’s Reality Check:

There’s a push for police to stop and search more suspects for weapons after a big fall in the use of the power since 2010. But New York police have also reduced their use of similar powers over the same period - and their murder rate has fallen.

Stop-and-frisk powers, as they’re called in the US, give officers the authority to interrogate and search people who police are vaguely suspicious about.

Analysis from the New York Civil Liberties Union also shows that nine out of 10 people who have been stopped and frisked in New York “have been completely innocent”.

Intelligence-Led Stop And Search

During his campaign to become Mayor of London in 2015 – and following a 54% drop in stop and search since 2010 – Sadiq Khan vowed he would do “all in my power to further cut [the use of stop and search]”.

He added: “Overuse of stop and search can have a dramatic effect on communities. It undermines public confidence in our police if Londoners are being stopped and searched for no good reason.”

However, Khan has attempted to draw a distinction between a blanket reduction and more intelligence-led, targeted searches in order to make them more effective and lead to more arrests.

In fact in the wake of the violent start to 2018 in the capital, Khan said the Met would use “a significant increase in the use of targeted stop and search by the police across our city”

Adding: “When based on real intelligence, geographically focused and performed professionally, it is a vital tool for the police to keep our communities safe. It will let the police target and arrest offenders, take the weapons they carry off our streets and stop these attacks from happening.”

Does Stop & Search Work?

The UK reports calling for more use of stop and search claim it has an an effect on killings, but this is not actually backed up by the available evidence from this country.

A study by the College of Policing that looked at ten years of data from 2004 to 2014 found stop and search only had a small effect on levels of drug offences and burglary, but none at all on violent crime.

College of Policing
The findings of a study from the College of Policing into stop and search powers. The study highlighted that higher rates of stop and search were only occasionally followed by very slightly lower rates of crime. The table shows associations between searches and crime from Metropolitan Police boroughs from 2004–14. 

Overall, the College of Policing study highlighted that higher rates of stop and search were only occasionally followed by very slightly lower rates of crime:

The inconsistent nature and low strength of these associations... provide only limited evidence of stop and search having had a meaningful deterrent effect.

Speaking on the Today programme on Wednesday morning, shadow home secretary, Dianne Abbott, echoed these findings, saying: “There’s no evidence that the old indiscriminate stop and search was an effective weapon in dealing with gun crime and knife crime.

“The main thing it found was small quantities of drugs.”

Dr Tara Lai Quinlan, lecturer in law and diversity at the University of Sheffield and a member of campaign group StopWatch, said that most stop and searches don’t target violent crime, but rather drugs.

“62% of stop and search is targeted at drugs... and most of those we’re talking about low level drug possession,” Quinlan said.

Such searches can have an impact on intelligence gathering, Quinlan told HuffPost UK, as communities could start to view the police as untrustworthy.

“When it comes time to give information about knife crime and (report) violence people may be less willing to talk to the police,” Quinlan said.

What Else Could Be Done Instead? 

The Runnymede Trust’s Dr Zubaida Haque said the use of stop and search is not an effective tool in tackling violent crime in London as it fails to address the main root of the problem.

“The biggest predictor of violent crime, of any crime, is poverty,” she told HuffPost UK.

“And we know from research that in areas where they have addressed poverty, crime has gone down. That happens in multi-ethnic areas, as well as less diverse areas.”

Haque said that austerity cuts have had an impact on the rise in violent crime, particularly among young people, with many services being lost over the years.

“It’s not an accident that violent crime has been going up in the last several years vis-a-vis austerity cuts.”

In the last five years, 12,700 places have been lost in youth centres because of service cuts. This can have an impact on how society is engaging with young people, Haque said.

The solutions have to be about making younger people feel safe Dr Zubaida Haque, research associate at the Runnymede Trust

She said that many young people do not feel safe and do not trust the police. This can lead some to feel as though they have to protect themselves by carrying a dangerous weapon, such as a knife.

“The solutions have to be about making younger people feel safe,” she said.

Experts advocate more community policing as opposed to stop and search, although with 20,000 fewer police on the streets, services are stretched.

Diane Abbott said the solution actually lies in Scotland, which in 2005 had the second highest murder rate in Europe. This prompted the formation of a violence reduction unit (VRU) which treated violence as a public health issue rather than a strictly criminal.

Abbott said: “Glasgow was the knife crime capital of the UK and they implemented a public health approach where police worked with education, NHS, mental heath and other parts of the state, and the last full year when records were kept, there were no deaths from knife crime.”

Lammy blasted the flimsy response from leaders in the capital and called for London to adopt a similar approach to Glasgow.

Lammy told the Today programme: “I’ve had four deaths, I haven’t had a phone call from the home secretary. I have not had a phone call from the mayor (of London)... no-one has come to visit my constituency.

“This is happening across London at large. I’m frankly sick of the political football. What I want is a political consensus.

“The city of Glasgow had a problem ten years ago. It was the murder capital of this country.

“Last year (there was) not one death as a result of a stabbing because there was a political consensus between the Labour party and the SNP... they have a public health strategy, all agencies coming together, all resources and the community itself were sick of it but people are stepping up, so it can be done.”

Haque called for a similar approach in England, telling HuffPost UK: “It’s a brilliant thing that Scotland has done to turn it into a public health issue because the thing about turning it into a public health issue is the emphasis is back on the victims and that’s what’s really missing in London.”

By tackling it as a public health issue, it is treated as not only a risk, but preventative measures are also addressed, she added. This comes from multi-agency work and looking at multiple ways of addressing the issue, not just stop and search.

Haque said knife crime “gets taken more seriously when it’s a public health issue”, adding: “It’s a national crisis.” 

Quinlan echoed this, describing the public health approach as a “great avenue” which should be pursued.

“I think that law enforcement really needs to work in partnership with communities,” Quinlan said. “Because of the potential damage to police legitimacy and the trust and confidence people have in the police, the relationship with the community is so imperative... it can’t be an us vs them.”