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More Data, More Racism, No Respect

The new Met chief's big data obsession risks overlooking long-standing concerns from Londoners about police culture and conduct

Entering so-called Blue Monday with the state ol’ Blighty is in, I tried desperately to find a source of positivity for the nation’s future from anywhere I could think of. And upon reading new Met police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley’s speech at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (I said I was desperate, please don't judge), I immediately got buyer’s remorse.

Our Reformist-in-Chief set out his ‘optimistic’ vision for how policing could work in the UK, making a pointed effort to align his force with an organisation that, in his words, ‘has been one step ahead – asking how do we solve the problems of tomorrow by revolutionising the tools and techniques of today’. And so, Rowley's speech was tailored to address the Met's issues as though they were technical, rather than psychological, or moral. No mundane questions such as ‘why is your force so racist?’ and ‘why have you got so many rapists in your ranks?’, and ‘why do so many of your officers think they are above the law just because they enforce it?’

‘Today is about solutions and plans’ he quipped, before forging on like Harold Wilson with summoning the white heat of technology to a force with no shortage of TASERs to draw upon amongst the rank-and-file.

But to get the watching audience to buy into his Robocop vision, Rowley made an appeal to a dilemma he believes the Met faces: their lack of resources. The commissioner lamented that the New York Police Department has 26% more officers than his own.

And just like that, my regret kicked in. For all the hope that he’d do or say something, anything different from his predecessors, Rowley exposed his inability (or unwillingness?) to understand the fundamental problems with policing in this speech.

For a start, what does he think that he needs 26% more officers for when he also mentioned later on in the speech that New Yorkers are 'four times more likely per capita to be murdered than Londoners'? To stand around taking selfies of the deceased?

And what does he believe a 27% increase in funding to match police expenditure 11 years ago is good for if he cannot prove that it would decrease crime? Such resources are only useful if they are effective.

And why does he only talk of money as a resource, when the police have accumulated significantly more enforcement powers over the same period? Today, our personal freedoms are so precarious that under the soon-to-be-piloted Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVRO), an officer who is unsure if an individual has an SVRO will almost certainly have to conduct a stop and account to confirm the fact (see para 46 of the statutory guidance). And what happens when an innocent individual refuses to divulge any information, but the officer is insistent for it? Who will prevail in that conflict: the unarmed civilian who is well within their rights to exercise their liberties in a public space, or the officer who can call for armed backup and intimidate the civilian with the threat of force?

According to Rowley, more data is the panacea to such problems, if only officers weren’t burdened by ‘bureaucracy’, a term used pejoratively without justification. But even a cursory nod to the standards the commissioner wishes to achieve will prove how necessary bureaucracy can be. Take this statement:

We are issuing every officer a mobile phone – 29,000 in all, enabling officers to better support victims.

In light of the Charing Cross scandal, and countless harassment cases involving officers' mobile phones, how else will Rowley’s new initiatives work if he simply bins off bureaucratic distractions such as monitoring and compliance?

By using ‘data’ and ‘science’ with ‘precision’ to get ‘upstream of crime’ before it happens, we’re told, and nowhere is that more crucial than for the indispensable crime-fighting tool of stop and search. On this subject, the commissioner performed an astonishing sleight of hand when he stated that the Met’s critics ‘say that most of our searches intercept no drugs or weapons’, before going on to remark that ‘we have countless examples of offenders being discovered to have dangerous weapons, tools for burglary or drugs on their person that have been uncovered by my officers being in the right place at the right time’.

So without denying the first statement (which is true to the tune of roughly 70% of searches by the way), Rowley used an unspecified adjective (‘countless’) to describe the much smaller volume of successful searches conducted by his officers, and then teased yet-to-be-published evidence promising that ‘stop and search can halve murder rate in London hotspots’. The news rags’ headlines may have bought the Met boss’s sophistry hook, line, and sinker, but my inner pedant was triggered to the point of howling (read the following transcript passage with context in italics):

As a forthcoming global [not London or even UK based, so how useful a comparison can be drawn?] review of evidence for the Oxford Journal of Policing will report, stop and search in weapons crime hot spots [will coverage of these ‘hot spots’ have a significant influence on stop and search throughout any metropolis? I doubt it!] can cut attempted murders in those small areas by 50% or more [over what period of time?].

Beneath the platitudinous fanfare, the fact remains that the Met’s critics are correct. And while Rowley said that he accepted the conclusions drawn from Baroness Casey’s diagnosis of systemic failings in the Met, one wonders if his Turnaround plan will end up overlooking long-standing concerns about police culture and conduct in favour of his big data obsession. Ultimately, radically changing the former for the better would have positive effects on the latter anyway. Imagine a force that:

  • took many more complaints against officers seriously, especially against plainly racist officers who are a root cause of the persistent racial disproportionality in searches between white people and Black people [MORE TRUST];
  • shifted its stop and search resources away from targeting individuals suspected of possessing small amounts of cannabis (the most common discovery for police searches) to the kingpins of drugs supply chains (or better still, gave up the War on Drugs in favour of a defacto decriminalisation) [LESS CRIME]; and
  • doubled the proportion of searches that found anything on a person, probably by conducting fewer hunch-led stops and calling it 'intelligence', as well as scrapping 'suspicionless' section 60 powers [HIGH STANDARDS].

And a key big data tip on stop and search policing in particular would simply be to rerun the major study behind the all-important question: Does stop and search deter crime?

If the answer is still that there is 'little effect on violent crime', with ‘weak overall effects at “the outer margins of statistical and social significance”’, then I'd probably encourage more non-police solutions to the problems society faces. Can't be more precise than that.

By Eugene K

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

All blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of StopWatch UK.

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