Met police failing over rise in knife crime due to over-reliance on stop and search, study finds

Dame Cressida Dick has failed to get a grip on knife crime because of an over-reliance on stop and search at the expense of bobbies on the beat, a study by a Conservative think tank has found.

In a report backed by the UK’s former head of counter-terrorism, the Metropolitan Commissioner is slated for an “unusual and unjustified” strategy of relying on stop and search to stem record levels of knife attacks and deaths rather than neighbourhood policing and targeting drug traffickers.

It warned that the number of fatal stabbings in London doubled in the six years to 2019 when all knife crime offences increased by “only” 58 per cent, despite stabbing survival rates rising by 50 per cent.

The report by Policy Exchange, a think tank close to Tory ministers, increases the pressure on Dame Cressida, whose relationship with Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has become strained in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard by serving Met officer Wayne Couzens.

‘We have too many lives being lost, too many cases of people missing’

Ms Patel is frustrated with the “defensiveness” in Scotland Yard and has told Dame Cressida to get the force “back on course” by reversing rising crime rates after handing her a new two year contract.

“We cannot have this constant deficit, this negative position where we have too many lives being lost, too many cases of people missing, too many incidences where cases are being reported to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. That is a worrying factor that has to change,” Ms Patel told the Telegraph.

Dame Cressida Dick during a community walkabout with fellow police officers in Westminster

Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

The Policy Exchange report found the Metropolitan police had the highest rate of stop and search compared with similar forces like Merseyside, West Midlands and West Yorkshire yet had the lowest rate for arresting drug dealers and the second lowest rate for bobbies on the beat.

The Met stopped 5.5 times as many people as West Yorkshire, apprehended only a third of the drug dealers arrested by Merseyside and had half the neighbourhood policing strength of the West Midlands and Merseyside.

“The Metropolitan Police seems to have an unusual and unjustified strategy, combining a relatively high rate of stop and search with weak community policing and targeting of high-profile criminals,” said the report.

“Effective policing with regards to knife crime requires a few key approaches, including suppression, targeting high profile criminals and gang members, and neighbourhood policing.”

Black people murdered in England and Wales

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Sir Mark Rowley, the former Met assistant commissioner – whose comment can be read in full below – said the data on the differential rates was “extraordinary” and called for a “fresh look” at police tactics.

“The Met appears to adopt a highly suppressive approach yet puts fewer resources and less effort into community policing and proactive prosecution of drugs gangs,” he said.

“This is not an argument against stop and search – it is a vital tactic that the Commissioner was right to increase – but it is an argument for a fresh look at whether a different combination of tactics may be more successful.”

The report, by research fellow Sophie Falkner, said the recent drop in knife crime was “almost entirely” accounted for by lockdown. It was therefore vital the Met prepared for an upswing “before knife crime spirals out of control again”.

At its peak, there were 44 offences a day. The Met accounts for a third of all knife crime even though London only represents 15 per cent of the population.

The report said the Met should do more to highlight the fact that black men were nine times more likely to be murdered and five times more likely to be hospitalised by a stabbing as justification for its intense stop and search.

Proportion of murders by age group and ethnicity

“The Met has, over the last few years, relied too heavily on this tactic alone, without building support for its activities from the communities most in need of help,” said the report.

“This is compounded by a failure to correct the misleading narrative about stop and search claiming that some communities are subject to higher levels of it than others.

“The real injustice is that young black men are nine times more likely to die of homicide in London than young white men, with this figure rising to 24 times more likely across the UK as a whole.”

The report also found more than a quarter of the capital’s gangland knife murders (29.4 per cent) are linked to ultra-violent “drill” music.

Adidas was named and shamed in the report for promoting a notorious drill rapper Headie One (Irving Adjei), continuing to do so even after he was sent to prison for knife possession.

The Met said stop and search resulted in 400 weapons being taken off the street every month, but added: “We are taking steps to better listen and respond to concerns. We are working with our communities to improve our use of stop and search, including involving them in improving our training through their lived experiences of having been stopped and searched.”

The Met must study the data to solve imbalance in their strategy

A young black man growing up in London is nine times more likely to be murdered than his white peers, rising to 24 times more likely when taking the UK as a whole, writes Sir Mark Rowley. Pause and reflect on why we don’t hear that number too frequently in debate on policing, yet reports on the “disproportionality of stop and search” seem to be released weekly. Why are we more concerned with criticising police operations than with understanding the reason for the tragic concentration of crime in a few communities?

I was moved to collaborate with Policy Exchange on their insightful new report, Knife Crime in the Capital, to try and help break the dangerous logjam in the debate on policing, stop and search, and knife crime.

Policy Exchange reveal that the temporary reduction in violent types of knife crime over the pandemic will be just that, temporary. Much of the reduction in knife crime since 2019 is attributable to coronavirus restrictions, not to a successful strategy to counter it.

Furthermore, widely reported fatal stabbings are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to knife crime data. Below the surface, hidden away in the most dangerous estates in the capital, hundreds of injuries are inflicted on young people by knives every year. It is only improvements in NHS trauma care that have prevented the numbers of those killed in stabbings from skyrocketing over the past decades.

Policy Exchange have also provided a unique analysis of the different strategies being used across big cities and finds London adopts an extraordinarily different approach to the West Midlands, Merseyside and West Yorkshire. Having policed Birmingham, Surrey and London and led national policing functions in my career, I understand the degree to which some differences in approach between police forces are necessary. However, it seems extraordinary that the Met stop and search rate is 5.5 times that of West Yorkshire, yet the rate at which they apprehend drug traffickers (usually only recorded upon arrest) is less than a third that of Merseyside, and the strength of Neighbourhood Policing in London is just over half that of the West Midlands and less than half that of Merseyside.

The Met appears to adopt a highly suppressive approach yet puts fewer resources and less effort into community policing and proactive prosecution of drug gangs. This is not an argument against stop and search – it is a vital tactic that the Commissioner was right to increase – but it is an argument for a fresh look at whether a different combination of tactics may be more successful.

Having seen the evidence presented in this report from the limited amount of public data, I am at a loss as to why organisations such as the College of Policing or Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services are not producing this type of analysis. These are the organisations tasked with inspecting the activities of the police and bringing a scientific approach to ‘what works’ in policing, yet they have failed to raise awareness as to the unusual and apparently unsuccessful imbalance in the Met’s strategy. The Home Secretary, Mayor, police and crime commissioners and police chiefs can hardly be expected to make the best decisions if the quality of research they are being presented with is below par.

While I am familiar with the policing side of tackling knife and gang-related crime, I have been shocked by Policy Exchange’s revelations as to the societal context within which these crimes are occurring. This report reveals how social media has transformed gang relations and highlights the appalling lack of action social media companies have taken against the promulgation of illegal activity on their platforms. This is compounded by the complicity of the music, entertainment and fashion industry, who turn a blind eye to the context in which some drill music is created, offering lucrative record and advertising deals with little regard for the ongoing criminal cases their clients are involved in. Sponsoring criminals before they have served their full sentence not only undermines the criminal justice system, but sets an atrocious example to younger generations – who are often lacking positive role models – as to the true consequences of committing crime.

Policing is a tough profession and is inevitably contentious operating, as it does, around the fractures within communities where the dangerous and the vulnerable collide. It’s time for a more constructive, innovative and collaborative approach to solving this all-too-real tragedy, and we as a society must consider the consequences of the naïve legitimisation of gang culture, the victims of which are concentrated in a few communities.

Sir Mark Rowley was the Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations of the Metropolitan Police Service from 2014-18

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