In over 30 years as an activist seeking to reform police practice, including a period providing mayoral oversight of Scotland Yard, I’ve met some incredibly talented, committed and progressive officers. One who sticks in my mind is Tim Godwin, a former deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan police, whose favourite theory was what he called “the policing cycle of reinvention”. It stated that whenever progressive policing reform was enacted, it would be resisted from below, and then confronted by sustained political pressure. Unsupported by leaders without vision, the reforms would then collapse.
Today we see this same old cycle being replayed in the demand for rising levels of stop and search, despite Theresa May having been previously convinced that disproportionate discriminatory and oppressive use of stop and search is deeply damaging to relations between the black community and the police.
Her scepticism was well warranted. A study of the effectiveness of stop and search by the College of Policing, which examined whether the higher rates in London boroughs resulted in either higher arrest rates or had any deterrent effects, found only limited evidence a meaningful deterrent effect. “It is important not to overstate the benefits of stop and search, particularly at a force of borough level,” it said. And yet that is what is being done. Having diagnosed our mistakes, we are now seeking to repeat them.
Recently I submitted freedom of information requests to the police about the effectiveness of stop and search as revealed by the rate at which those arrested in the capital are subsequently determined to have done nothing wrong – in police parlance, to “require no further action”. The numbers are staggering, and undermine police claims about the intelligence-led use of the power leading to an improving arrest rate.
The data shows that in the year 2014-15, a total of 82,183 citizens in London were arrested, and then subsequently released without charge. Of that number 12,564 were Asian, 22,275 were black. Add in the “mixed” category of 4,925 and the other non-white ethnic groups, such as the Chinese, and you get a total of 43,022. White Londoners were only 37,047, or 45% of the total.
And that’s not the entire story. Consider the total stop and search rates for that year; according to the StopWatch charity, using Met figures, there were 171,504 stop and searches under section one of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Add to that the hundreds of thousands of stop-and-account interactions that don’t result in arrest, and you begin to see the real scale of the problem.
Ethnic disproportionality is reflected in other areas of operational policing, and represents a huge obstacle to improving levels of trust and confidence that black people and other ethnic minorities have in policing, which are currently at an all-time low.
From other FoI requests, I have discovered that in inner city areas, black and ethnic minority confidence in the police rarely rises above 50%, and disturbingly in some of the key areas – such as Lambeth, Newham, Haringey and Hackney – regularly drops to as low as 30%.
The other critical error now being made by both Amber Rudd, the home secretary, and Cressida Dick, the new Met commissioner – and seemingly supported by the mayor of London – is the false promise that higher rates of stop and search will lead to a reduction in violence. It won’t – not least because tackling violence in acutely deprived communities cannot be delivered by policing alone.
But aside from policing, what’s left? In London, where public health is now a devolved responsibility, we see cash-strapped statutory and local authorities forming partnerships that produce micro-projects of excellence, surrounded by endless seas of mediocrity and failure.
The politically unpalatable truth that must be addressed is that violence is increasing in the capital’s black communities because of rising poverty.
Trust for London research shows that for black/mixed people, the adult unemployment rate increased by three to five percentage points between 2008 and 2013, while for the 16-24 age group the increase was a massive 14 points for mixed ethnicity groups, and 11.5 in black/Caribbean communities. Of these in work, 34% were paid below the London living wage thresholds.
Such rising poverty will lead to increased violence in all communities. That’s the real reality: violence is ramped up by poverty and it is not a black cultural problem, specifically.
And yet we know too how race exacerbates inequality. A review by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2016 said that black and ethnic minority people in Britain still faced “entrenched” race inequality in many areas, including employment, education and health. David Isaac, its chair, warned: “We must redouble our efforts to tackle race inequality urgently or risk the divisions in our society growing and racial tensions increasing.”
A report I helped to author produced by Blaksox, a new social movement, completely supports that view. It allowed young black people to speak out about the challenges they face, and found that the most pressing were the lack of economic opportunities and the nightmare that is the scale and availability of illicit drugs. They told us of communities where deprivation is so far-reaching that the selling of drugs seemed the only economic option available to them – and violence was therefore “necessary” and ubiquitous.
Poverty drives violence in our communities. We know there are evidence-based solutions that would allow us to start tackling these complex issues. But that is the frustration. For we also know that discriminatory stop and search will exacerbate these issues, and yet we are more than willing to enter the futile and reckless policing cycle of reinvention all over again. And we all know how that story ends.
• Lee Jasper chairs the London Race and Criminal Justice Consortium, and is a former policing director for the Greater London Authority.