Boris's scary arches

Observations on knife crime

Barely a month into his new job as Mayor of London, and Boris Johnson is instituting the kind of authoritarian measures he used to slate as the bossy "schoolmarminess of Blair's Britain". His scariest plan is to cover London with ominous-sounding "knife arches", airport-style metal detectors, to search people for deadly weapons.

Boris says he already has 150 mobile knife arches ready to go, and has instructed police to start erecting them at busy transport hubs. Detectors will be put at the entrances to train and bus stations, and possibly on busy shopping streets, too. Citizens going about their daily lives - travelling to work, shopping, popping out for a drink - will have to pass beneath them and then submit to a patting-down by the police if they "beep". And which of us will not beep, given the likelihood that we'll be carrying keys or mobile phones or wearing metallic jewellery? The arches will be an administrative nightmare, as well as an Orwellian one.

There have certainly been some horrific stabbings in London recently. But the new mayor is scaremongering about the scale - following the fatal stabbing of 22-year-old Steven Bigby in Oxford Street on 12 May, he demanded an "urgent operational response" to tackle what he hysterically referred to as "the culture of stabbing" in London - in order to push through tougher policing of the whole city. For all his talk about this "dreadful trend", knife crime in London is falling. The most recent crime survey by the Metropolitan Police showed it has dropped by 15.7 per cent over the past two years, from 12,122 to 10,220 incidents. Even the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, points out that murder in London is not "out of control" and that it has actually fallen over the past five years.

A report last year by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) at King's College, London said that "much of the media reporting and political comment [on knife crime] has been misleading, in part due to the paucity of reliable information on the problem and in part due to the failure to present known facts accurately". The CCJS warned that "sensational statements increase public fear".

The minority - those criminally minded people determined to carry a knife - will, of course, avoid Boris's knife arches. Yet the majority - peaceable citizens hoping to catch a bus or a train - will have no choice but to submit themselves to the arches' all-scanning, all-detecting eyes. Londoners are already among the most spied-upon people on earth: the average Londoner can expect to be filmed by 300 CCTV cameras a day; there are roughly 1,800 cameras in London's railway stations, and 6,000 on the Tube and buses. Add metal-detecting knife arches to the mix, and London will increasingly resemble a city under occupation.

These arches send a stark message about the shifting relationship between the state and the individual. If we must pass through crime-detecting machines, then we are no longer free citizens: we are objects of suspicion, living under the permanent gaze of the panicky authoritarians in City Hall.

And for all this scaremongering, the truth is that London's public transport is safe compared with other cities. Last year there were 1,806 reported assaults on the Tube, or one assault for every 449,690 commuters. In Perth, Australia, where many Brits migrate in order to escape the crime and grime of Britain, there was one assault for every 222,360 commuters last year.

This didn't stop Boris okaying the use of hand-held scanners to search young people for weaponry and giving police the green light to stop and search without "reasonable suspicion". The Children's Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, is concerned that young people in particular will become further alienated by these heavy-handed measures; new powers could "create further antagonism", he warns.

The mayor talks about a small number of tragic incidents as a “culture” in order to justify a clampdown on freedom of movement and association. But the knife arches will just make the city’s inhabitants feel ever more watched and distrusted.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack