13 April 2016

Stop and Search, Knife Crime & Young People

Kwame Boateng Sekyere's avatar

A recently released Home Office study states that, contrary to a number of high profile figures claiming otherwise, stop and search has no discernible impact on crime. StopWatch intern Kwame finds out how young people in London think we should be dealing with knife crime.

A recently released Home Office study states that, contrary to a number of high profile figures claiming otherwise, stop and search has no discernible impact on crime. Last summer, when the number of calls to increase stop and search in response to teen stabbings in London were at their highest, I spoke with young people across the city to find out their views on the role of this police power in tackling knife crime.

Among discussions about the effectiveness of stop and search, the danger of stereotypes routinely came up. This re-emerged in the recent Supreme Court ruling on Section 60 that suggested targeting young black people ultimately helps them because it protects them from gun and knife crime. StopWatch, in response  to the Section 60 judgment, said “This judgement speaks to stereotypes, not to the realities faced by many young people across the country”. Resorting to such stereotypes is understandably a regular bone of contention in the stop and search debate and the youth groups I went to had lots to say on the matter.

During my research, I held discussion sessions in youth groups around London (in Islington, Streatham, and King’s Cross). There were approximately 30 young people involved, aged between 12 and 25 years old. Their experiences of stop and search varied considerably, some of them had been searched more times than they could remember, while others had never been. Same too for their level of exposure to knife crime and gang violence. This kept the discussion sessions dynamic and I was able to ask questions that fuelled debate and brought their different perspectives and opinions out.

A recurring issue brought forward was police profiling, but rather than ethnicity alone, they focused on profiling based on image. Each group gave details of the image and markers they felt the police targeted; hoodies, bomber jackets, bicycles and ethnicity were among the things mentioned.

When we resort to stereotypes we make grave assumptions that knife crime only affects young black people. The danger of this generalisation is that anti knife crime policies that include stop and search may be unduly made to focus on black youths, a group in whom the vast majority will have had no previous involvement with knife crime or violence. Hasty policing strategies like this could also mean that knife carriers who do not fit this oversimplified profile go unnoticed.

The discussions also showed me that the police’s often aggressive approach harms how young people view stop and search. One participant felt that this aggression was due to the police unnecessarily expecting confrontation, whereas if they expected cooperation, which many young people are prepared to show, they could engage more effectively.

With regards to the strength of stop and search in tackling knife crime, there were a wide range of views. Some felt that whatever the broader problems with stop and search it can be an effective tool to stop someone being hurt on that particular day if a knife is found, while others countered that if intent on carrying them there are many ways for people to get rid of knives before being stopped and searched- a point also supported by other work conducted with youth offenders. Whilst StopWatch has since conducted research demonstrating that there is in fact no link between rates of stop and search and knife crime it was significant that participants’ personal reflections on the issue varied depending on their proximity to the effects of youth violence. One group felt the positive possibilities of stop and search outweighed the negatives, whereas another group that was more closely affected by knife crime pointed to the need to address the deeper, underlying issues that drive people to carry knives in the first place and deem it a risk worth taking. Stop and search can only deal with the issue on the surface but will not, alone, tackle knife crime.

These discussions have shown me that the aggressive approach of police and the underlying issues are linked. If a person sees the police as a source of confrontation and not consolation it is unlikely that they would rely on them for safety, and would feel the need to take matters into their own hands, such as by carrying a knife. This is not my justification for knife carriers, but my attempt to understand the root of the problem, which I feel will ultimately lead to finding a solution.

Clearly, this issue has no simple answer, and while an aggressive, reactive solution may reassure the public that action is being taken, it also fails to address- and possibly adds to- the problems that are rife underneath. Problems such as fear among young people, broken police-community relationships and self-defence at any cost.

From my experience as a young person growing up in London, these problems will persist and grow, until there is open and unbiased dialogue between young people, the community, and the authorities. Because with any relationship, consistent communication and understanding is foremost and foundational.

Kwame worked with StopWatch between July and September 2015