By Professor Philip Stenning
The Home Office announced this week that since introducing its Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP) in June of this year, ten police forces have reported having collectively made “over 105,000 stop and searches for offensive weapons”, and that in these police force areas over 2,200 “weapons” have been seized during that period (“Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP) Fact Sheet” - December 2008 - accessible here).
Assuming that each “search” involved one individual, that each separate seizure involved only one weapon, and that every illegally possessed weapon that was discovered was seized - assumptions which are not necessarily justified - it does not require a mathematics degree to figure out that only one in every 48 searches uncovered illegal possession of a “weapon” (the Home Office “Fact Sheet” does not indicate how many of the “weapons” seized were actually knives).
Given that police are only justified in taking such action if they have reasonable suspicion that the person stopped and searched is in possession of stolen goods or “prohibited articles”, and assuming that the police have been acting within the law, these figures indicate that in 98% of such stops and searches police suspicions with respect to illegal weapon-carrying were not confirmed. This extremely low “hit rate” would seem to require some explanation. How, one might ask, could police suspicions be so often unconfirmed?
Research on the exercise of stop and search powers by police during the last twenty-five years or so suggests that the answer lies in the fact that reasonable suspicion of illegal weapon possession is probably not the real basis for many, if not most, of these stops and searches. More likely is that the “offence” of Being Young and Male In a Public Place (BYMIPP) is the real trigger for such police interventions - other likely significant criteria include being in a group (read “gang”), being in a deprived area (read council estate), looking “scruffy” (read wearing a “hoodie”, being a “chav” or, as police sometimes refer to them, a “scrote”) and, quite possibly, being non-white.
One can well imagine the outcry if middle class bankers (another recently demonised group) were subjected to such treatment by the police on the streets or in the boardrooms of the City. The young people stopped and searched for knives, however, have none of the political or social capital with which to resist such police attention that bankers have. So instead of being recognised as almost certainly a gross violation of these young people’s civil liberties (as would be the case if the targets were bankers), the statistics produced by the Home Office this week are trumpeted as proof of a highly successful campaign against knife crime.
In support of this claim, the Home office has noted that compared with the same period last year, hospital admissions for assault by a sharp object have declined by 27%, there have been 17% fewer serious knife crimes against young people, and 18% fewer knife crime victims under the age of 20, etc., etc. No evidence is proffered, however, that these changes are a direct product of the dramatic increases in stops and searches (10,000 more every month in the ten police force areas, according to the Home Office) since the TKAP was started, and as every criminologist knows, when dealing with complex social problems such as knife and gun crimes, such correlations cannot be assumed to be causal.
Even if they can be shown to be, however - i.e. that mass, largely unproductive and probably random or plain discriminatory, street searches of young people do actually achieve such reductions - we still need to ask whether such crime control tactics are justifiable in a liberal democracy such as we claim to be. Random breath testing has certainly been accepted as a strategy to reduce automobile accidents and deaths due to alcohol consumption. But the argument put forward in this case is that driving is inherently a potentially dangerous activity, so can be considered a privilege rather than a right.
Last I heard, however, hanging out in public places with your mates is a right, not a privilege, in our society, and BYMIPP should not be considered an offence justifying police attention.