5 February 2021

This House ain’t safe

Is Sir Stephen House the biggest threat to Black Londoners' safety?

Sir Stephen House, deputy assistant commissioner of the Met police, wants to decriminalise the word disproportionate. No, really, he does, he told the London Evening Standard so. House would have you believe that simply saying there is racial disproportionality is the bottleneck preventing the capital's police force from stopping gangs of young Black men from killing each other on London's streets, every mention being an accomplice to a stabbing.

This sits at odds with the fact that, according to the Home Office's own police recorded stats: only a fifth of all stop and searches in London in 2018/2019 looked for offensive weapons in the first place; only 2% of all searches resulted in arrests for offensive weapon possession; and in 2019, a BBC Politics London report discovered that despite making up 47% of firearms and 55% of weapons searches in the capital, the Met were less likely than average to find a blade or firearm on Black people.

But Sir House's appointment to the Met in December 2018 was only in keeping with the lurch toward increasingly draconian street policing and criminal justice approaches in the last few years.

So, one might wonder what Sir House has achieved of late? Well, we only need observe his time as head of Police Scotland (2012 – 2015) to find out.

One of the force's most infamous cases of recent times happened on his watch: Sheku Bayoh died following his arrest and restraint by nine officers in Kirkcaldy. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Bayoh's killing eventually led to an independent government inquiry following a police investigation, but not before House visited the officers involved first, a move that raised suspicions of police impropriety and interference. Police Scotland were also found to have continued conducting stop and searches of children under 12 years of age, long after they pledged to abolish them. House's highest ranking hire, assistant chief constable Wayne Mawson, was found to have led a sixteen-point plan of action in an attempt to undermine research revealing the industrial levels of stop and search activity conducted throughout Scotland. 

Outside of stop and search, the force also used the tragic massacre of schoolkids at Dunblane as an excuse for the rollout of armed units to all regions of Scotland for routine patrols, the counter corruption unit sparked a political row when using (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) spying powers without getting judicial approval, in a bid to uncover a journalist’s sources, and the entire force came under fire for the neglectful handling of a car accident near Bannockburn that resulted in a potentially preventable fatality.

That last scandal prompted House's resignation, a year before the end of his tenure. Presumably House's position was no longer tenable once his own officers openly mocked him:

... during the Scottish Police Federation’s conference Trump Turnberry resort in Ayrshire yesterday, delegate Scott Meechan delivered what the host hailed as the “killer question” after he compared First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to a football club chairman who publicly backs a beleaguered manager. 

To applause and laughter, he said: “The First Minister recently stated she has full confidence in the Chief Constable.

“Should Team Police Scotland expect a new manager?”

Meanwhile, Scotland’s successes in dealing with knife crime as a form of serious violence through government-supported initiatives such as the national Violence Reduction Unit (eg between 2006/07 and 2017/18 there was a 65% decrease in crimes of handling offensive weapons) showed that there was no place for Sir House's punitive law enforcement methods compared to the much more effective strategy of adopting a public health response to knife crime.

However, it came as something of a surprise to some ex-colleagues – even disbelief – when, despite his well-publicised failings in Scotland, he was snapped up by the biggest force in the UK a few years later, especially with the initial aim of responding to 'the challenges raised recently in respect of disclosure policy and practice'.

So, today we find ourselves at a point where a police chief linked with so many high-profile controversies at one force that he had to step down is allowed to make policy pronouncements at another, such as pushing for police body worn camera footage to be shown in court because the justice system is 'not always doing enough to punish attacks on police'.

Given his track record, should Sir Stephen House even be at the Met though? I fear not only that his 'tough on crime, tough on the children of crime' approach to law and order is wholly antithetical to the protection of Londoners, but that for those most vulnerable to overpolicing in the capital, House might well be the biggest threat to their safety.

So when House vows to continue with disproportionate stop and search 'in areas of high crime and high violence', the Met police become a danger to young Black people. In fact, as long as Sir Stephen House is the Met's deputy commissioner, no Black family in London can be certain that the force will keep their children safe.

Written by Eugene K, communications volunteer for StopWatch UK coalition.

Photo by Étienne Godiard on Unsplash