Fatuities about crime have long poured freely from politicians’ mouths, and not only Conservative ones. But Boris Johnson is a long term repeat offender. His successful campaign to become Conservative Party leader was liberally laced with claims about the relationship between his actions as London Mayor and levels of recorded violent street crime in the capital during that time – claims frequently made with crowd-pleasing assertions about the efficacy of stop-and-search. There’s barely a shred of evidence to support them.
Earlier this year, educational charity the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies published an analysis of data on stop-and-search in the capital compiled over the last ten years, a period that largely coincides with Johnson’s eight years at City Hall. Co-authored by Ben Bradford, one of the most eminent criminologists in the land, it concluded that the tactic’s “overall effect on crime is likely to be at best marginal”. Any positive impacts have been “at the outer margins of social and statistical significance” for some forms of crime, while its usefulness in combatting a larger range of offences, including “non-domestic violent crime” appears to have been non-existent.
This exhaustive piece of work is either unknown to Prime Minister Johnson and his national government team or an inconvenience to be dismissed. Johnson has form for the latter attitude, as we students of his mayoralties can attest. In early 2010, a little under two years after he had come to power in London and got the Met to increase its use of stop-and-search in a high profile bid (Operation Blunt 2) to suppress a recent increase in stabbings, another top criminologist, Marian Fitzgerald, whose career included working for the Home Office under a Tory government, assessed some basic figures.
These showed, for example, that a big increase in the use of stop-and-search to 9,437 in Southwark during a six month period in 2009 had coincided not with a fall in recorded knife crime offences but the opposite. By contrast, in Islington knife crime offences had fallen by a quarter during the same six months, during in which only 840 stop-and-searches were conduced. The overall picture across borough was mixed and Fitzgerald’s conclusion was measured, saying the statistics showed “there is not necessarily a strong correlation between the use of this power, very indiscriminately, and falls in knife crime”.
However, Mayor Johnson dismissed Fitzgerald as “some professor” and his then deputy for policing, Kit Malthouse, insisted there was no doubt that a fall in knife crime London-wide could be attributed to more stop-and-search being used. Malthouse, now an MP, has been assigned by Johnson to put his promises on crime and policing into effect. These include “greater powers of stop and search”. “On it,” Malthouse has tweeted to 1,400 “likes”. “Come off it”, seems a logical response.
The Centre for Crime and Justice study cautions against any conclusion that stop-and-search has no positive effect on crime at all. It says the tactic probably helps “when it is part of a wider ‘suite’ of police interventions targeted at high crime locations”, though how much help remains unclear. It also says that, more importantly, stop-and-search “can form an important part of criminal investigations” if more serious crimes are uncovered as a result of a search of someone for something else.
But its principal finding from the London evidence is that “it seems unlikely that crime can be reduced simply by increasing use of the [stop-and-search] power; and suggestions that conducting more searches provides a simple, easy and/or ‘obvious’ way to reduce crime are very likely mistaken”. That, though, is precisely the suggestion London’s last Mayor made when he was at City Hall and is now making again, with renewed force, in his new job at Number 10.
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