Viewpoint: a response to the IOPC’s one sided stop and search report
Chris Hobbs argues for a more constructive dialogue on the use of stop and search in areas blighted by high levels of violent crime
It seemed only months ago that the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) produced a report which condemned the Metropolitan Police for their conduct over stop and search. The report, published in October 2020, was damning and indeed Met officers could have been forgiven for ‘pulling away’ from using their powers but, thankfully they did not. Knives, machetes and other offensive weapons including firearms continued to be taken off the streets by the hundred.
The IOPC have just produced an even lengthier report which, whilst ostensibly covering all forces in England and Wales, is clearly focussed primarily on the Met.
If the hierarchy of the IOPC hoped their critical report would steer public attention temporarily from the tragedy of Ukraine and the transgressions of ‘partygate,’ they must have been disappointed. There was coverage online, notably by the Guardian and Independent but, it would be true to say that the ‘event’ passed most of the public by.
The report was however seized on as ‘manna from heaven’ by activists and politicians who are habitually hostile to the police and will be used as a ‘stick’ to beat officers with in the months to come.
The implicit theme that runs through the report is quite simply that in carrying out stop and search officers are guilty of racial bias and racial stereotyping. The only concession made to front-line officers is an acknowledgement that stop and search should be retained.
In order to support their argument, the IOPC frequently make use of a small number of ‘case studies.’ These cite examples of ‘poor policing’ yet they appear to be examples selected from complaints/cases referred to themselves which of course will be those of a more serious nature. The IOPC state that 695,000 searches were carried out nationally with 311,000 of those undertaken by the Met.
There is little background information, for example, concerning the young man who was allegedly stopped and searched on 60 occasions. The most obvious question was how the lad found himself in situations and locations where he was actually seen by officers 60 times. Doubtless there will be many others of similar age and appearance, who, over an identical timespan, would not have been stopped once.
Did the IOPC make enquiries to see whether there was any intelligence on this individual? Were the locations and times a factor and indeed did they check with police records that his claim was accurate and if the answer was yes (or no) to the above questions why weren’t these facts included in the report?
The use of ‘case studies’ is a useful tool in propping up arguments and could be used by anyone who wishes to denigrate a public body such as the health service. Dr Harold Shipman and Nurse Beverly Allitt are the most obvious examples but the maternity units at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS, Nottingham University Hospital Trust and Morecombe NHS foundation could also be added to any ‘case studies’ given the numerous deaths of mothers and babies.
Mercifully common sense has prevailed and the NHS, despite the huge pressures placed upon it, is still respected and revered and rightly so. Unlike the police service, its dedicated workforce have not been ‘collectively smeared.
The IOPC report also speaks of its consultation with ‘stakeholders’ which, I presumed, would have included front-line officers who have worked in the areas where stop and search is at its most contentious and necessary.
Presumably, ‘stakeholders’ are those referred to at the end of the report under ‘acknowledgements.’ We have a list of ‘distinguished’ academics from various universities, the IOPC youth panel, and tellingly, ‘members of local independent and community scrutiny groups, panels, and independent advisory groups.’
Which begs the question as to those deputised by the IOPC to ‘go in to bat’ for officers on the front line who conduct stop and search? The answer appears to be as follows: The National Police Chiefs’ Council; The College of Policing; The Home Office; Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Police and Crime Commissioner leads for equality, diversity, and human rights; The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and the National Black Policing Association.
There is a distinct absence of those who could put forward a contrary view that would be representative of those held by most officers who actually have to police our streets on a regular basis.
The IOPC report showed virtually no empathy for officers who have to deal with incidents on the streets of London and elsewhere that have resulted in hundreds murdered and grievously injured over the years. The report frequently uses the following term or derivatives of it namely ‘disproportionate.’ It is used to illustrate the fact that black youths and young men are disproportionately stop and searched by police.
The term isn’t used to describe the reality that young black men are disproportionately likely to be the victims of stabbings and shootings and that the perpetrators are also disproportionately likely to be young black youths or men. Racist murders, such as those which took the life of Stephen Lawrence are now relatively rare.
Officers who police or ‘overpolice’ high crime areas are more than aware that these areas suffer socio-economic deprivation and neglect caused by ineffective and indeed corrupt politicians from across the pollical spectrum over decades.
The shadow of the gangs
This deprivation has spawned gangs which have blighted London for more than twenty years. Some are still in existence; some have fractured into separate rival gangs while some have become extinct to be replaced by others. Added to this mix is the culture of drill music, followed by millions and which has exacerbated gang rivalries resulting in numerous acts of violence.
Drill rappers have been murdered, others imprisoned and youth ‘You Tube’ news bulletins keep the millions of youth followers up-to-date with current events. Many of these gangs are involved in drug dealing or ‘trapping.’
Statistics suggest that something like 25% of stop and searches lead to, in police parlance, a result in terms of weapons, drugs or property obtained illicitly. I’m not the only former police officer which finds that figure shows a higher ratio than expected.
The issue of stop and search having a deterrent effect is rarely discussed in that this, in itself, is not an excuse for police to carry out a search yet is surely a factor worthy of discussion.
Whilst most stop and searches are for drugs, the Met and other forces don’t record how many drugs searches result in an arrest for possession of a weapon. Equally forces don’t record how many stops and searches ultimately result in the young person who has been stopped being safeguarded because officers realise, he or she is a victim of county lines criminality.
The IOPC also endorsed the comment made by others, including the College of Policing, that the smell (perhaps stench would be a better description) of cannabis should not be grounds for a search. This begs the question as to the research carried out by the IOPC and the college as to whether and when the smell of cannabis has led to the arrest of individuals in possession of significant quantities of drugs.
Another statistic which should form part of the overall equation is simply whether officers are stopping the right people. How many of those stopped and searched have previous convictions and/or significant intelligence traces?
There appears to be a school of thought that, if there are benefits from stop and search, the damage to community relations caused by using those powers outweighs those benefits. Other than an admission that stop and search powers should be retained, the IOPC merely echoes criticisms made by activists.
When addressing the London Assembly less than two years ago, Deputy Commissioner Sir Stephen House, stated that in London black males were five times more likely to be homicide victims and eight times more likely to be the perpetrators.
These tragic deaths are surely issues which should be worthy of in- depth discussion somewhere within this IOPC report together with the possible consequences of stop and search being dramatically curtailed.
The IOPC would also be aware that violent street crime in London is being reduced. The Covid pandemic obviously may be distorting those figures but equally, if they are valid, those spared death or serious injury and/or trauma would, in large measure, have those stop and search powers to thank.
It would also be interesting to know whether the IOPC considered the views of those whose nearest and dearest have become the victims of knife or gun crime. A number of relatives who have lost loved ones are in fact supporters of stop and search. I can’t see any obvious reference to those individuals and groups amongst the acknowledgements but hopefully, they were consulted; if not, surely, they should have been?
If there is one aspect of the IOPC and the Police Inspectorate reports with which officers would agree, it is the issue of training. There has long been concern that much training carried out by forces has been less than adequate due, in part, to cutbacks.
Depending on the training issue, concerns apply to a); frequency, which is especially relevant to public order and OST (officer safety training) and b); to the content in relation to other issues. Particular contempt is shown for the loathed NCALT (computer-based training).
The College of Policing has replaced ‘NCALT’ training with the term MLE (Managed Learning Environment) although it’s not yet clear what difference this will make to the actual training which is delivered by computer. Whatever the changes, it would be true to say that the college has, during its ten-year-existence, totally failed to gain the confidence of rank-and-file officers and key appointments over past months have done little to enhance that confidence.
Officers would welcome training which would make stop and search a relatively stress-free ordeal for both officers and those being searched. Alas, the perception by black and other minority communities that police officers are racist is likely to provoke an attitude of resentment from the beginning of any encounter.
Vulnerability of officers.
Constant negative publicity and denigration contribute to the vulnerability and safety of officers performing duty ‘on the front line.’ A response officer recently told me that their role has been made more difficult by a series of ‘own goals’ and of course unlawful, distasteful, vile and brutal behaviour by officers should be in the public domain. However, this needs to be balanced.
Mayor Khan’s ‘constructive dismissal’ of the Met’s commissioner added to the furore which has included constant negative assertions that have collectively smeared the entire Met workforce. Unbalanced negativity only encourages lawless elements and political activists from both the hard left and far right to confront police at every opportunity. The risk to the safety of officers is increased and it says much for those on the ‘front line’ that they have continued to do their best to keep the public safe and this includes continuing to take weapons and drugs off the streets.
An incident which illustrates the above-mentioned vulnerability occurred on Monday night in the aftermath of the 4/20 cannabis festival in Hyde Park. A serial of officers was posted at the entrance to Speakers Corner and a black officer, according to an independent journalist present, suffered horrendous abuse from a crowd of black youths to the extent that he had to be led away by colleagues. The journalist added that his colleagues were extremely supportive.
This wouldn’t be the first incident of its kind; black officers also received horrendous abuse during London’s BLM protests which followed the death of George Floyd and are frequently abused on the streets.
At the time of writing, footage has appeared which shows the aftermath of incident in Hackney that involved the arrest of a female following a fight in which offensive weapons were brandished. Officers were surrounded by a hostile crowd who doubtless believed that this was yet another example of police racism.
The IOPC report fails to place any significance on the horrendous impact of violent crime, notably stabbings and shootings. It fails to effectively link violent crime with drug supply and fails to link drug supply with county lining and the exploitation of the young and the vulnerable.
Police officers save lives.
Every lethal weapon taken from the streets is a potential ‘life-saver.’ Just about every dead victim of knife or gun street crime would be alive today had their assailants been stopped and searched before encountering their victim yet there is no effective discussion in relation to this aspect of stop and search in the IOPC report.
In addition to saving lives by taking knives and other weapons off the streets, there was, again, no comment in respect of ‘racist’ Met officers and indeed those of other forces, who, after racing to the scene of a stabbing or shooting, actually save lives by applying crucial first aid to the victim before the arrival of paramedics.
Unlike the IOPC and the HMISFRS, officers will be only too well aware of the damage an individual armed with a knife, can do within the blink of an eye. ‘Stab-vests’ offer only limited protection yet the practice of hand-cuffing individuals for the duration of a search has been effectively ‘outlawed’ by the IOPC other than in wholly exceptional circumstances.
Yet it is less than two years since an Islamic terrorist armed with a knife murdered three able bodied men in a Reading park and injured three others while officers will forever remember the brutal murder of PC Keith Palmer fatally stabbed by a terrorist.
The prospect of stop searching individuals without the use of handcuffs becomes even more precarious if the officer concerned is single crewed.
It was while researching this piece that I discovered a research paper that appeared in October last year entitled simply ‘knife crime in the capital’ by Sophia Falkner . This was published by the Policy Exchange which might result in its dismissal by activists as the organisation is generally regarded as a Conservative ‘think-tank.’
Nevertheless, it is endorsed by Trevor Phillips while former Met Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley writes a detailed forward. It is hard to fault the meticulous research and the conclusion appears to be simply that the black community in London is in crisis in that it suffers disproportionately from extreme levels of ‘street’ violence. Blame is not apportioned to the black community itself.
After their election in 2010, both Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May went out of their way to criticise stop and search and pressed for a reduction. They achieved their aim; stop and search was reduced and weapons related violent crime increased.
In the wake of such hostility emanating from the IOPC etc, it would be understandable if officers, yet again, took a large backwards step from carrying out stop and search other than in circumstances where there was specific, ‘high-grade’ intelligence.
Some, on police social media, have suggested that all stop and search be ended. However, a straw twitter poll suggests that more than 70% believe stop and search should continue regardless of criticism. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of the public, especially those who reside in high crime areas.
Sadly, it’s hard not to conclude that the IOPC had already decided upon the outcome of their ‘independent’ investigation before it had begun and had merely then sought the ‘evidence’ which would corroborate their conclusions.
The final word should perhaps be with Mark Rowley who, in the above mentioned forward, states the following;
“The real injustice is the disproportionate way young black men are victims of crime, not policing tactics. It’s time for a more constructive, innovative and collaborative approach to all too real tragedy solving this.”
Chris Hobbs is a former Met officer who worked in Special Branch
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