Boris Johnson with Met police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe in September, outside Scotland Yard
Source: Getty Images
A pre-dawn raid under Operation Hawk saw a mother woken by banging and shouting this week. Officers charged into her flat with rolling cameras, bright lights and none other than the mayor Boris Johnson when she was half dressed. They were looking for suspected drugs on her eighteen-year-old son, and they had brought along the BBC to make a high-profile point about it. Safe to say they didn't find what they were after, and left the South London flat without any arrests.
This raid was just one of over 500 actions taken across London on Thursday as apart of Operation Hawk. Led by the new Scotland Yard commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, the sweeping crack down came with its own Twitter hashtag and fleet of journalists. It was a perfect opportunity for the new commissioner to make his mark and give Boris some publicity in the process. According to the Met's news feed, some progress was made. Over 200 premises were searched with 278 suspects arrested and 39 weapons seized.
But in a number of areas including Peckham and Chiswick, officers brought back little but damaged community relations. As for bringing along Boris, this was a flagrant and dangerous example of politicising the police.
The night it happened I knocked on the door of the raided flat in Peckham and found the mother still shaken. I explained I was a councillor for the area who lived down the road. She talked off the record to me about her experiences, but didn't want to be quoted. She was shocked with the existing coverage as it was. The BBC reported Boris being asked to wait outside her home because there was a "scantily-clad lady" inside.
Power has no idea how humiliating it can be.
But this is not about whether it was justifiable to break into this particular home. It's obvious that raids are sometimes necessary, and they can't always be expected to deliver results. Many of my constituents continue to complain that the police don't do enough. But to bring along a mayor and a set of camera crews on a raid is unnecessary and degrading. It reduces important police work to a press affair for the mayor, who joked about the need to "bring in the heavies" with a coy smile.
"It was disgraceful," one neighbour outside the Peckham block who has lived there for sixteen years but didn't want to be named told me, "We didn't know what they were doing. Boris has never come here before and now his black land rover was parked up with its tinted windows and they were having a press conference outside here."
"I'm not surprised people were frightened. I've never had trouble in this area but coverage like that gives it a bad name. I don't know what they were doing to be honest. I only found out about it by looking at Youtube when I got to work."
I spoke to a number of other neighbours who said the same thing, most of whom were still understandably frightened and didn't want to speak out. A lady living below the suspected flat opened the door a crack and said the raid woke up her small kids. She said she had never had problems with upstairs before, but raids like that begin to breed suspicion amongst neighbours.
Hogan-Howe said the aim was to "put the doors in as quickly as possible, right around London". He said this could have "positive effects" even when they find nothing. But he underestimates just how corrosive such raids can be in areas that are already suspicious of police. Yes some will be pleased to see action being taken, but many will be left with nothing but the story of a bewildered mother and the signs of a smashed door. They will ask why other methods were not used first, and why different areas with less stereotypes were not chosen for a public raid.
What makes all this even more infuriating is that Boris Johnson is presiding over massive cuts to police numbers. In Southwark we are losing our community police officers and being forced to cut safer neighbourhood teams. Presumably we are going to have to rely on these grand, top-down show cases to offer demonstrations of strength, rather than building community knowledge that is better able to handle these concerns sensitively. If you ask me, this heavy-handed image will leave us less secure in reality. And I still want to know who is going to pay for that door.