Hobson’s choice of stop and search

Although it’s not something we do willingly, searching might prove effective in reducing teenage deaths in London

Anyone committed to democracy and civil liberties will have a visceral reaction to the notion of a police officer stopping an ordinary citizen in the street and ordering them to undergo a search. Those who are concerned about race and equality will also react badly, knowing that black people are 4.5 times more likely than white to be stopped by the Metropolitan police.In the 12 months to December, considerably more than 1.2 million Londoners, including me, were stopped under various police powers. Even if only one in 10 were unhappy, they would outnumber the army if they decided to do something about it. Thankfully, though, almost every one of those people is concerned about crime as well, and so more often than not teeth are gritted, jaws are clenched and forms filled in.
Some though feel so strongly that they actively campaign against the police power to stop and search, including in the pages of the Guardian. Mark Thomas and Claudia Webbe have both written here of their doubts and fears. Assembly member Jenny Jones, the prominent Green party representative on the Metropolitan Police Authority, has similarly voiced her outrage.

When Boris Johnson and I were elected in May last year, we were faced
with an appalling death toll in the capital, and it was rising. Each
morning we would reach bleary-eyed for our BlackBerrys on the bedside
table, praying that no teenager (or indeed anyone else) had been killed
overnight. Our prayers have gone unheeded 18 times. At the end of one particularly bloody week in July, six people lay dead, four killed in one day. Horrifically, the trend seemed exponential, with teenage killings almost doubling to 26 in the space of four years. At the rate we were going, we faced a number closer to 40 in 2008. Equally troubling was the weapon of choice: ordinary knives available in most kitchen drawers.

Operation Blunt 2 was launched in that context. Knife arches, search wands, and an increase in geographically targeted stop and search – often the most controversial kind – have resulted in 7,960 arrests and the recovery of 4,439 knives. The year 2008 ended with 28 teenagers dead, a terrible number, but many fewer than we had dreaded, or than the statisticians had predicted.

But success of stop and search is not measurable solely in numbers. What those who object to its use don’t acknowledge is the fear that parents already feel, knowing their children might not make it home at night. They might object to their innocent son being stopped and searched. On the other hand, they know that a knife seized on the kerb outside their home is a knife that might have killed him. Faced with Hobson’s choice, we opted for the lesser evil.

Boris Johnson has spoken powerfully and often about the need for long-term
change in the culture that breeds this violence and for greater intervention at an early age to prevent it. In November he launched Time for Action, a set of targeted, innovative and practical projects to do just that. But they will take time, perhaps years, to take effect. Until then, the teenagers who are dying don’t have the luxury of time.

Yes, we have to get stop and search right: it has to be done with respect and courtesy. The communities affected have to be fully informed and understand why our concern for them is more urgent.

Independent observers must attend often. Crucially, those police officers participating have to be properly trained and briefed, and understand that the public consent they need is based on their conduct of each and every encounter.

There has been a lot of touching wood at New Scotland Yard and City Hall over the last few months. In private and in public, we make no claims to success or cite “glimmers of hope”, for fear of tempting fate. And as I write, one London teenager, Steven Lewis, lies dead from multiple stab wounds, a dreadful reminder of the  challenge we all still face.