Britain’s most senior police officer has been urged to rethink her support for stop and search as race relations experts warn that an increase in its use will further alienate communities and make it harder to tackle the knife crime epidemic in London.
After a dramatic surge in stabbings, the new head of the Metropolitan police, Cressida Dick, spoke approvingly earlier in the week about stop and search, praising it as “hugely powerful” in tackling knife crime.
On Thursday, speaking to families in south London, Dick described the level of knife crime as outrageous and said most Londoners supported increased stop and search powers. “If police carrying stop and search can help to stop [knife crime] then the vast majority of people will be very supportive.”
Thirty people have been stabbed to death in London this year, a rise of almost a third on the same period in 2016. There have been 14 deaths in the last month alone. The latest occurred on Thursday afternoon, shortly after Dick met concerned parents in Putney, south London, when a 20-year-old man was stabbed in front of his girlfriend as the couple walked to their car, after watching a film in Romford, east London.
Critics warned that an increased reliance on stop and search to tackle knife crime risked making it harder to acquire the policing intelligence needed to effectively protect communities most affected.
Simon Woolley, a former commissioner for race on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “I would implore Cressida Dick to rethink this because if she stops every black person and every young person she would reduce knife crime – but at what price?”
Wooley, also the director and one of the founders of Operation Black Vote, said the legacy of stop and search meant tackling the current rise in knife crime was more problematic than it might have been.
The prevailing sentiment among many young black males in London was, he said, that they felt targeted by the police force and therefore did not trust the Met. Last year the official police watchdog said stops of black people remained at an “eye-watering” level compared with stops of white people.
Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust, a racial equality thinktank, said: “Being able to respond to knife crime will definitely be a challenge because communities won’t trust the police. We’ve met young men who’ve been stopped 15 times but never had a conviction.”
Figures published in 2015 found that black people were up to 17.5 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by police in certain areas of the UK – statistics that experts said suggested racial profiling.
Khan said research from his organisation along with Stopwatch, a coalition of academics and legal experts which monitors the use of stop and search, repeatedly found evidence of bias against young black men. Dick’s enthusiasm for stop and search was unlikely to have the backing of Theresa May, he said.
As home secretary, May threatened new laws if the police did not stop abusing their stop and search powers. “May was convinced that stop and search wasn’t a very productive tool, that it was a waste of police resources.”
During her tenure as home secretary, Home Office research was published revealing that the use of large-scale “surge” stop and search operations had no discernible effect in reducing crime. However, even critics of the tactic believe stop and search can be used effectively and without damaging community relations. Woolley praised the intelligence-led policing that had led to the arrest of a man carrying knives near the Houses of Parliament.
A Met spokesman said stop and search had been an “invaluable tool” in tackling knife crime and had resulted in more than 3,000 arrests for weapon possession each year.
“Over the past few years we have changed the way we use stop and search – it is now used less and is much more effective. Stop and search must be used in a fair and effective way that supports public confidence and is independently scrutinised. 74% of people surveyed supported our use of stop and search.”