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Stop-and-search policing can save lives by keeping weapons off the streets

Read my latest Scotsman column, published 29th August 2022.

It’s a difficult time to be a member of London’s Metropolitan Police. A succession of disasters have brought Britain’s largest force into disrepute.

The appalling errors of judgement in ‘Operation Midland’ that falsely accused entirely innocent public figures of the most serious sexual crimes rightly dented confidence. But it was the bestial murder of Sarah Everard, by a serving police officer, that did most harm.

It is hard to overstate the damage done to trust in the police service by one wicked man.

And now, with blood in the water, it’s open season on ‘The Met’, yet another Commissioner has left by the back door, as the thousands of decent men and women of the force carry on with one of the most difficult jobs in law enforcement.

Some criticisms are valid, others are old chestnuts that need to be challenged. Like the latest of many reports on ‘stop-and-search’ operations in London, suggesting racial profiling. On the face of it, there is some justification. The statistics do not lie. In London, a disproportionate number of young black men are stopped and searched. Taken on its own this would be outrageous, clear evidence of racial profiling, but of course there’s more to it than that.

On the same day as the latest stop-and-search outrage was reported, there was another news item, apparently unrelated. The Met were being lambasted for its failure to tackle the wave of violence sweeping the Capital, a virtual epidemic of knife crime.

As to the victims, the mortuary tells no lies either, the dead are disproportionally young black men, many boys in their teens. And the perpetrators? Again mainly young black men and boys caught up in trivial gang rivalries or turf wars. It’s a shocking waste of young lives and a catastrophe for the grieving families of both victims and offenders.

In the long term, the solution lies in family, community, positive male role models, education and jobs. But in the short term, targeted stop-and-search is a highly effective tool.

Never a strategy, it is a tactic that, properly applied, can prevent and detect crime. It can nip a problem in the bud, an age-old policing ploy that works if deployed smartly.

And here’s the nub, to work stop-and-search must be intelligently targeted. A heavy handed or indiscriminate approach will only breed grievance.

This is the problem, when the majority of offenders and victims are young black men, it’s logical that they will comprise a sizeable proportion of those who are stopped and searched. All the protective caveats should apply, reasonable grounds to suspect must be present, but the simple maths are inescapable.

Intelligence-led policing is a well-worked tactic to save lives and keep weapons off the streets. Street violence and gangs tend to come in waves but if tackled quickly, they can be snuffed out. If gangs or a culture of violence are allowed to take root, they can become endemic.

Criticism of policing is absolutely legitimate and often helps to improve the service, but we need to face facts about what’s needed to address crime and violence.

During my police service, I met many families affected by knife crime, victims and offenders. All of them would have wished for more stop-and-search, not less.

My article is also on the Scotsman's website here.

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