July 2021: No confidence, no progress

New government plan pushes almost completely ineffective section 60 search power to the fore, while GMP chief denies institutional racism exists within his force

Dear StopWatchers,

It’s been a busy month for controversy as stop and search hits the headlines once more. This time it’s the championing of suspicionless stops as an important tool of policing that work, despite an arrest rate of 3% over the last decade. The Home Office’s own figures show that the only year in recorded history section 60s have produced an arrest rate above 10% was in 2016/17, when the fewest number of stops were recorded (622). The most recent financial year available in the records (2019/20) saw the most number of stops conducted under the power since 2011/12 (18,081). Timely, as the Guardian reflects on 10 years since the uprising against police brutality triggered by the killing of Mark Duggan. And between the denials of police chiefs and government ministers that anything fundamental is wrong with the state of policing in this country, and the systemic failures that see no improvement in the numbers of deaths in police custody, we cannot help but feel that no lessons have been learnt.

Still, we try to hold the police to account, and we commend those around the country who do too, like the Suffolk Stop and Search Community Reference Group, who wrote about their model for scrutinizing stop and searches conducted by Suffolk police officers and how they navigated the difficulties caused by the pandemic (05 Jul).

Topics in this newsletter include:

  • Official crime figures find the threat of coronavirus has had a greater impact on the volume of serious violence than stop and search

  • Government announces its Beating Crime Plan, which includes making the relaxation of section 60 standards permanent.

  • Government also issues response to the consultation on guidance to support the application of Knife Crime Prevention Orders

  • And report commissioned by Greater Manchester mayor finds their police force institutionally racist – chief constable disagrees

Please enjoy our roundup of stories below.


Coronavirus fights crime better than stop and search

New crime figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) indicate that in the 12 months to March 2021, the number of police recorded homicides in England and Wales fell 16%, the number of offences involving knives or sharp instruments (knife-enabled crime) fell 15%, and the number of police recorded offences involving firearms fell 14% (ONS, 22 Jul). All good news. Special shout out for Q1 of 2020/21, which saw ‘the largest decreases in recorded crime’ (19%) compared with the same period the previous year. Must be all that stop and search finally paying off, eh? Or was it something else?

In fact, the ONS explicitly state that ‘patterns of crime in the year ending March 2021 have been significantly affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and government instructions to limit social contact’, which is: 1) a bigger and more convincing reason than any argument for increased stop and search; yet 2) makes the massive 40% increase in Met stop and searches during the first three months of lockdown (in the name of stopping illicit drug and weapon possession) look rather odd.

And with only a quarter of encounters finding drugs, one might wonder what ‘intelligence’ officers might be relying on to conduct searches.

Some officers claim that searches for drugs and/or weapons have often been driven by assumptions about what kind of person is likely to have a weapon on them. In their opinion, those who have drugs are most likely to have knives, and so the ‘smell of cannabis’ excuse may in fact be stronger grounds to ‘get hands in pockets’ than suspicion of weapon possession.

But this fails to explain the racial disproportionality between White and Black people in searches even though Black people are no more likely to have drugs on them, and as HMICFRS noted in their State of Policing report (21 July): ‘The prevalence of drug possession searches indicates that forces are addressing the effect of the problem, rather than the root cause’.

So stop and search isn’t always targeted at the most serious offences, or those of highest priority for forces and the public, and it is highly doubtful that it makes any impact whatsoever on the supply chains fuelling the illicit drugs trade.

However it is certainly the case that some people experience a police state, while others don’t.


Beating crime, beating the hell out of communities

From now on YOU will have a police officer you can call, says BORIS JOHNSON (Express, 25 Jul)

That’ll come in handy for when we report a terribly damaging government policy:

Among the ‘bold new measures’ to drive down crime, the government promises to empower the police to take more knives off the streets and to prevent serious violence by permanently relaxing conditions on the use of section 60 stop and search powers (UK Government, 26 Jul)

Home Office figures on section 60 – where officers can search anyone in an area without suspicion either in the aftermath or anticipation of serious violence – show that only 4% of searches under the power end in arrest (and 1% of weapons searches, in case you wanted to know how effective section 60 is removing knives from the streets).

Please note that section 60 never went anywhere; all forces always had the power. This announcement simply confirms the removal of slightly higher standards that police forces were subject to under former home secretary Theresa May’s best practice scheme (BUSS), namely:

  • raising the level of authorisation of a section 60 from that of an inspector to that of a senior officer – that is, an assistant chief constable, commander of the Metropolitan Police, or commander of the City of London Police or above;

  • in anticipation of serious violence, expecting the authorising officer to reasonably believe that an incident involving serious violence ‘will’ rather than ‘may’ take place;

A pilot reversing those conditions was initially trialled for 7 forces in March 2019, then expanded to all forces under the current home secretary Priti Patel in August of that year. And we’ve yet to see the full results, but don’t worry, because the Home Office could confirm that the pilot ‘gave police officers greater confidence to make use of the power’. Well, as long as they’re happy, we don’t need to think about the potential for abuse of the power, eh?

Perhaps it is a ‘loving thing’ to grant police forces the power to stop and search without suspicion in order to relieve them of dangerous weapons, as prime minister Johnson told the press. Black people would know about that love, seeing as they get searched 18 times more than White people under section 60. And all for that sweet 1% arrest rate from weapons searches, which is no more likely to result from searches of Black people than White people.

The backlash hit almost as soon as the policy announcement at Surrey police HQ ended. Our research and policy manager Habib Kadiri told the Independent that he suspected the government were increasingly making policy announcements on crime and justice ‘in bad faith rather than with good evidence’ (27 Jul), and the Criminal Justice Alliance, who had led a super-complaint to repeal section 60 altogether earlier this year, wrote a ‘despairing’ open letter to Priti Patel.

However, some of the most vocal criticism of the Beating Crime Plan came from the policing bodies themselves. Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, labelled the named-officer-on-call plan a ‘gimmick’ (Daily Mail Online, 26 Jul), while other senior police officers claimed that they were not even aware of the plans (Independent, 27 Jul). Even the head of the local force’s federation accused the prime minister and home sec of staging a ‘PR stunt’ on her turf (Police Professional, 27 Jul).

A lot of the fury from the police’s side had to do with the fact that despite the pledges of more weaponry and recruiting more ‘bobbies on the beat’, the government could not bring themselves to commit to a pay rise across the board too, which prompted the Police Federation to declare (via a vote) that it no longer had confidence in the home secretary and the pay review system (22 Jul). Chair John Apter said of the review board:

[The PRRB] is not truly independent, the body which is the only mechanism we have to consider any pay award for police officers, has its hands constantly tied by the government who continually interfere.

Funnily enough, many people feel similarly about the Independent Office for Police Conduct having its hands tied by police forces in relation to complaints over officer conduct. And much like police forces when confronted with deep-seated grievances, the government did not appear to be listening (Guardian, 27 Jul):

[Kit] Malthouse said: ‘… I often say “OK, if we can’t do stop and search what else can we do?” But it has to be something we can do tonight… To those people who are critics of the tactics, I would say look at the numbers, particularly somewhere like London, and tell us what the tactic should be instead.’

Firstly, as a BBC Reality Check article explains, ‘there is no clear correlation between the number of searches and the number of offences’, and there is the famous examples of Operation Blunt 2 having no effect on police recorded crime (27 Jul). In fact, all we can say with any confidence is that when the use of stop and search fell, the proportion of stops resulting in an arrest did rise. ‘In other words, when the police could search more people indiscriminately, they stopped many more people who weren't committing a crime’. So maybe less is more?

Besides, we dun told you the solutions already! As former StopWatch chief executive Katrina Ffrench wrote in an opinion piece for the Guardian, the lack of financial resources put into non-police initiatives such as restorative justice, conflict resolution and de-escalation is ‘astounding’ (28 Jul). But part of this would involve removing the responsibility for dealing with weapons and drugs from the policing portfolio, and this law-and-order-obsessed government shows little sign of doing that.

The clue is in the priority that the government give to policing and non-policing solutions: the Metropolitan police’s Violence Suppression Units alone cost more than double the amount that earmarked for early intervention and preventative activity in all of England and Wales (£40 million versus £17 million).

This is indicative of an attitude that appears to demand that the most vulnerable in society somehow earn the gift of government support, which may explain the policing minister’s defence of policing solutions above others.

But defending the relaxation of restrictions on section 60s for such pitifully low arrest rates drags us from a classically British conception of liberty towards the realms of a police state. In no other walk of life would this high a failure rate be tolerated.


KCPOs are here to help

Knife Crime Prevention Orders (KCPOs) are for everyone, and the government wants you to know about it. Nearly 2 years on from the Home Office’s consultation on guidance to support the application of KCPOs, the government issued the following response to some respondents’ concerns that in practice, KCPOs might impact disproportionately on young people and adults from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (05 Jul):

Knife Crime Prevention Orders would be available irrespective of age or ethnic background. The government therefore does not expect to see any group or community negatively or unfairly targeted by the introduction of KCPOs… in relation to offenders, the data show that nationally the Black population have a disproportionate rate of sentencing for knife and weapons offences per 100,000 than the White or Asian population. Therefore, whilst we acknowledge that it is not possible to rule out the possibility that KCPOs are applied in a higher proportion to young Black and ethnic minority male offenders, the outcome is likely to be far more positive for the individuals themselves, the communities they come from and the wider society as a whole.

If the government’s claim is to be believed, KCPOs could be a sensible solution to the problems some young people of colour face that drive them to carry knives (they can be imposed on children as young as 12 years of age).

But for all the associative factors identified in the latest research from the UK Millennium Cohort Study (including experiences of low household income, domestic abuse between parents, and conduct/hyperactivity problems, self-harm, substance use, being excluded from school, and having peers who use multiple substances), there is ‘no evidence of ethnic minority groups reporting higher rates of weapon carrying or use than those of White origin’ among 17-year-olds at least.

The subtle trick of interpreting knife sentencing in the official crime statistics as a proxy for knife possession suggests that that KCPOs may tackle a symptom of the problem rather than the cause, therefore exacerbating racial disparities in a way that amounts to an abdication of the government’s ‘responsibility to consider the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation in accordance with section 149 of the Equality Act’ (The Voice, 07 Jul).

A similar trick happens all-too-often with stop and searches in general. Take the incident featuring Kim Johnson MP, who was in a group with her sons in Covent Garden the evening of the England v Scotland Euro 2020 match when they were approached by police (Guardian, 06 Jul). Johnson said her group felt targeted even though ‘there were loads of Scottish football supporters, who were involved in antisocial behaviour – being leery – in the same vicinity as us’, a brief mention of her status may have saved the group from further inspection from the officers.

Much like with KCPOs, it seems obvious to us that police attitudes of who does crime explain why these encounters exist. The logic is circular: police think racial disproportionality in searches is justified because they think (erroneously) Black people are disproportionately involved in criminal activity, so they stop them more often, which drives racial disproportionality in searches.

But if the police take racial disparity in stop and searches and knife crime as a given, rather than question whether their biases are the cause of racial disparity, it will only perpetuate the myth that Black people are the most imminent threat in any public space, leading to fishing expeditions for ‘certain types’ of individual even when more pressing threats of antisocial behaviour and violence from others are all around them.


Sorry if you feel your police force is institutionally racist

A report commissioned by Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham found that Greater Manchester police (GMP) officers are 5 times more likely to stop and search Black people than their White counterparts, 4 times more likely to use force on them, and were more likely to refer to Black people’s physique when recording why they used force – proof of common use a ‘racist trope’ within the force, according to the chair of the region’s race equality chair (GMP, 27 Jul).

‘I would unequivocally say that there is institutional racism [in GMP],’ said Elizabeth Cameron, chair of the Greater Manchester Race Equality panel (Guardian, 27 Jul). ‘There are an [sic] inherent attitudes there – the speed at which people trigger towards aggression is what proves it.’

But what does she know? In response to the report, GMP chief constable Stephen Watson said: ‘I do not accept that GMP is institutionally racist, but I do accept that a lot of people think we are. And their view is really important because they are the folks that we serve, and so we have to address those concerns head on.’

Goodness knows how Watson will do this if he doesn’t think the force is institutionally racist. Watson also said the report didn’t ‘provide all of the answers’. Perhaps he can explain why racial disproportionality exists where no other force can, but it’d be understandable if the good people of Greater Manchester feared that their chief constable did not have the measure of the problem.

Opinions aside, Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury of the Northern Police Monitoring Project told ITV News that the fact is racism has been part of GMP culture for some time.

However, at this rate, chief constable Watson’s denials of the report’s findings will only guarantee that no progress will be made by his force towards achieving race equality.


Deaths from police contact, cases old and new

Mouayed Bashir

29-year-old Mouayed Bashir was ‘restrained by police’ in his home before dying a short time later in hospital, Newport Coroner’s Court has heard, but further proceedings into the inquest are to be delayed until July 2022, due to a COVID-19 backlog. (Voice Online, 13 Jul).
Gwent police and an ambulance were called to the home of the Bashir family in Maesglas, Newport on 17 February. Mouayed was then taken to hospital in Cwmbran where he was later pronounced dead. A post-mortem examination was carried out ‘but no precise cause of death has been given at this time’. In February, Gwent police referred itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), who are also investigating the death.

Unknown

The IOPC launched an investigation into the Metropolitan police after a ‘distressed’ man claiming to be stabbed died after police put him in a single handcuff (Evening Standard, 05 Jul).
The Met said they were called to reports of a distressed man shouting for help and trying to grab people – officers said they found the man lying on the floor, ‘extremely distressed’ and claiming to have been stabbed. They then checked him for stab wounds before placing him in a single handcuff after which they claimed his behaviour became more erratic. The handcuff was removed from one of his arms as his condition deteriorated with officers performing first aid until paramedics arrived. The man was taken to a south London hospital, where he died later that evening.

Unknown

The IOPC is investigating the death of a 49-year-old man in police custody in Abingdon, Oxford. The man was arrested by officers in the early evening of Friday 25 June and taken to custody at Abingdon Police Station. By the early hours of the following morning, the man was found unresponsive in his cell and paramedics were called. Despite efforts to save him, he was pronounced dead at the scene. Thames Valley police have since referred the case to the watchdog (IOPC, 05 Jul).

Unknown

A man has died in Haringey after police were called in response to reports that ‘someone had a knife and was behaving erratically’ (Tottenham & Wood Green Independent, 26 Jul).
Officers were called to a residential address in James Gardens to find the man in clear distress. In an attempt to prevent him from causing ‘harm [to] himself or others’, handcuffs were briefly applied. He was eventually taken by London Ambulance Service to a north London hospital, where his condition deteriorated. He died a few days later.
The IOPC has been informed, and a thorough investigation is underway that will include a full review of body worn video.

Unknown

The IOPC is investigating the circumstances of a 43-year-old woman who died in police custody in Tonbridge, Kent (IOPC, 29 Jul). She was arrested in Tunbridge Wells by Kent police officers the evening of 23 July and taken into custody at Tonbridge Police Station, but had trouble breathing the following day and was found unresponsive in her cell. Paramedics were called and despite efforts to save her, she was pronounced dead at the scene. The outcome of the subsequent post-mortem examination was inconclusive pending further tests. An inquest will be held at a later date, to be determined.


Other news

Evidence-free: The criminal justice system is at risk of serious miscarriages of justice due to the collapse of 11,736 cases due to missing key evidence between October 2018 and June 2020, according to a freedom of information request (Byline Times, 05 Jul)

#KillTheBill by other means: Netpol lament the failure to stop the latest policing bill from passing in the House of Commons, and look to extra-parliamentary measures to resist it (15 Jul)

The police bill is a public health issue: Doctor appeals to profession to play its part in thwarting the policing bill or ‘risk becoming a danger to public health’ (Shado magazine)

It’s in the culture: Dame Cressida Dick backs Hendon methods, despite leaked documents and internal sources revealing regular occurrences of violence and dishonesty among police trainees (Guardian, 17 Jul)

Cops out of Mcr schools: Manchester Council goes against region-wide plans for police officers in schools, with them being ‘linked to areas in the city’ instead (The Meteor, 20 Jul)

Accidental Death of a Black Londoner: A Novara documentary in partnership with the Shine A Light investigation team looks into the tragic death of Rashan Charles case (22 Jul)

Institutionally defensive: Thinkpiece on Dame Cressida Dick’s defensive response to the findings of the report from the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel before the London Assembly’s police and crime committee (OnLondon, 22 Jul)


Section 60 watch*

London

Tower Hamlets (19 Jul)

Kent

Dartford (15 Jul)

Essex

Southend (10 Jul)

Thames Valley

Milton Keynes (12, 20 Jul), Oxford (29 Jul)

West Midlands

Birmingham [Bordesley Green and Alum Rock] (16 Jul), West Bromich (21 Jul)

Cumbria

Barrow (23 Jul)

South Wales

Cardiff (26 Jul), Rhondda Cynon Taff (29 Jul)

* This is not a comprehensive list


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