As some of you may know before I came to lovely NW Hants, I was a London Assembly Member and between 2008 and 2012 I was Deputy Mayor for Policing and head of the Met Police Authority. My biggest challenge was dealing with knife crime and during my term we got teenage killings down from 29 to just 8 in 2012. So when I read about the multiple stabbings in the capital at New Year I decided to write about my experience and what needs to be done yet again to help with this problem. The London Evening Standard took the piece and you can read it below.
You may think this is only a London problem, but what starts there often ends up in towns like Andover, and London gangs do travel down the A303 to deal drugs in our area – that’s why its in all our interests that the Met police perform at the top of their game.
Here’s the piece
The dreadful spate of knife killings that ended 2017 brought back terrible memories for me. Nearly a decade ago, On 27th March 2008, 14 year-old Amro Elbadawi was knifed to death by a close friend in Queen’s Park. Devoe Roach, a 17 year-old was found dead in a street in Stamford Hill on the same day; he had been stabbed through the heart. I was on the campaign trail that month, fighting to become the London Assembly member for West Central. And so it was that I visited the Elbadawi family just days later and felt first hand the devastation of knife crime.
Londoners’ anxiety about the rise in violent crime was clear both on the doorstep and in our campaign polling, and in large part it meant the end of Ken Livingstone that May. So when Boris Johnson asked me to become Deputy Mayor for Policing, it was both the mandate for change and my own visit to the Elbadawi family that informed our priorities for the Met. Families like theirs and the communities in which they live needed someone to feel responsible. They needed someone to care about their sons’ lives and deaths.
My life as Deputy Mayor for Policing soon became dominated by the number 29 – the total of teenagers killed in my first year. In July of that year, six people were stabbed to death in one week and the papers were rightly filled with outrage. By the time I left in 2012 the total had fallen to eight – eight too many, but on the 2008 trend it could have been 50.
And now, five years later, that number is back up to 26. The four killings on New Years Eve, alongside the rise in moped robberies and acid attacks, have once again stoked a smouldering sense of fear about street violence in the capital.
This is all too redolent of my first meetings at Scotland Yard, when the then Commissioner Ian Blair complained that statistically the numbers were very low. Look at New York, he said, London doesn’t have a problem.
Sir Ian’s cavalier dismissal made clear to me that these kids had become numbers on a chart to the political and police leadership at the time. That the teenagers were overwhelmingly black only added to the sense that their murders were just a fact of life in the city.
But Londoners had elected Boris Johnson and me on a platform of combatting crime so we immediately demanded assertive action. Within days we launched Operation Blunt 2, a big increase in stop and search, knife arches across London and widespread weapon sweeps. I knew this was never going to be the long-term answer, but faced with parents terrified their kids wouldn’t make it home from school that day, the police took thousands of knives off the streets, 5,480 in the first twelve months alone.
We also demanded action on gangs, but the leadership of the Met stubbornly refused to establish a specialist gang squad. Thankfully the front line borough commanders, closer to the evidence in the streets around them, took a different view. I established my own gang tactics board; members were identified and targeted. In 2012 newly appointed Met chief Bernard Hogan Howe finally established the Trident Gang Command and overall homicides fell even further to a 40 year low.
Much of this was controversial. Black communities were disproportionately affected by both the crime wave and the police action to deal with it. Boris and I spent hours with community groups large and small demonstrating that black lives mattered to us too, and that the police needed their help and support to save them. Overwhelmingly parents were with us. Younger people, who had sometimes been stopped and searched several times despite having done nothing wrong, were less keen. Overall there was a grudging acceptance that an urgent situation demanded assertive action.
Still, we recognized that some of the criminal behavior flowed from a lack of opportunity and engagement, and committed to the long term work that would turn these children away from violence. We launched “Time for Action” a program aimed at tackling some of the deeper causes of this terrible phenomenon. Project You spread uniformed youth groups – cadets, scouts guides – across London, to encourage different models of group behavior. We launched a mentoring scheme for young black men. And we opened a dedicated wing in Feltham Young Offenders Institute, recognizing that their first time inside was likely our last chance to turn them around. One of its inmates went on to enroll in university.
But a further element was urgently needed: making the teenage victims real for the senior cops at Scotland Yard. So I began hanging their photos on my office wall. As senior officers came for meetings, you could see them glancing up at the faces and names: Zac Olumegbon 15, Michael Wright 17, Leroy James 14 and others. As the awful gallery grew, the faces of those murdered children gazed down on the Met’s leaders and complacency was replaced by a shared determination to save lives.
While the Met is an incredible organization filled with brave and dedicated officers, it must be driven hard. Otherwise, like many large institutions, it has a tendency to drift. Sadiq Khan has produced a glossy knife crime plan, and is often seen on parade with the Commissioner, but that’s not enough and it’s certainly not leadership. Mayoral leadership means tenaciously holding the police to account for the death of each and every teenager in London. It means not caring if the cops are your friends, but judging them by the work they do to keep all Londoners safe. And it means not requiring the media’s validation, because saving a single kid’s life is reward enough.
We certainly didn’t get everything right on policing during the Johnson years, but we were driven by sense of mission and took responsibility for each and every murdered teenager. Perhaps that’s where Mayor Khan should start.