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26 March 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

Is cutting the number of stop and searches behind the rise in crime?

The evidence suggests not.

By Stephen Bush

Is the UK’s increase in crime a result of Theresa May’s decision to curb the use of stop and search by the police – the Metropolitan Police in particular? That debate has reached the top of the Cabinet and was the subject of James Forsyth’s Spectator column last week. Boris Johnson is among those said to believe that May’s actions as Home Secretary are behind the hike in crime, both in London and elsewhere, and are particularly to blame the increased number of acid attacks.

There are a number of important facts to note, the first of which is that stabbings actually fell immediately after the reduction in the number of stop and searches. I don’t think this was anything other than a coincidence: until relatively recently, the United Kingdom, along with much of the Western world, has been enjoying a prolonged fall in all crime (other than “invisible” or white collar crime, like cloning someone’s credit card or what have you). Crime continued to fall both in London and elsewhere for a further three years.

In addition, it is hard to argue that stop and search was working well as a device for catching criminals. Only one in ten stops led to an arrest, and while black people were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched, they are not seven times more likely to be criminals, nor seven times more likely to be arrested as a result of stop and search.

Indeed the proportion of arrests following the change in policy actually went up (partly because the actual number of arrests hasn’t changed all that much), which further suggests that May’s policy change did successfully cut out the number of innocent people being stopped and searched for no good reason, without reducing the number of criminals being stopped and searched unduly.

And as far as the increase in crime goes, it is below the national average in London, despite the fact that the city has seen the largest reduction in the use of stop and search. Yet it is attracting outsized attention in London for a variety of reasons: our London-centric media environment, that it comes ahead of fiercely contested elections in London, and because, for slightly different reasons, Theresa May and Boris Johnson each have a stake in explaining why the increase in crime is nothing to do with them. But any explanation for the increase in crime rates that starts with London is likely to be inadequate. 

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The odd thing is that if you really want to blame Theresa May or Boris Johnson for the rise in crime, a much starker and fairer example is the abandonment of the Metropolitan Police’s policy of pursuing robbers on bikes. This was implemented because of the danger to the person, often a young person, in fleeing by bike, but it has probably incentivised bike-related crime, which includes the bulk of the acid attacks in the capital.  

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So it is hard to pin the rise in crime on the decreasing number of people being stopped and searched, particularly as May did nothing to curb the use of legal stop and searches. The police still have broad powers to stop and search people, there are just greater measures to prevent its illegal use. So while we cannot entirely rule out Johnson’s argument, it has no support in the available data.

In any case, the debate is running out of road. The arrival of police body cameras and the British public’s continuing love of closed circuit television means that the new priorities for people concerned about the use and abuse of police powers will be over the following areas: what sanctions are there on police officers whose cameras “stop working” unexpectedly during a contentious episode or when someone ends up injured or dead following police contact? Where, by whom and for how long is footage from police body cameras kept? These will be the new frontiers of police accountability, rather than a refighting of old wars.