Lies, damn lies and statistics

Eleven people dead in a fortnight and countless others wounded.

Eleven people dead in fourteen days.

No, I'm not talking terrorism.

This is the alarming rise in violent knife crime in London.

The city in which I live and work.

A city in crisis.

A city in which many commentators continue to attack the police over the use of stop-and-search.

50% drop in stop-and-searches during 2015.

Let's be clear where I stand on this before we start: I am a former police officer with more than twenty years of experience. I have myself conducted thousands of stop-and-searches in my time.

I currently work in the security sector looking after high-net-worth individuals, protecting them from attacks and crime.

If you look, you can find reports which bandy about statistics saying that stop-and-search is a tool of little or no use. Some commentators within ethnic minority communities complain that stop-and-search unfairly targets those who are non white; that it corrodes community relations, prevents people coming forward with intelligence, and that somehow it is a barrier to non-white people joining the police.

There were 1.2 million stop-and-searches in England and Wales over a twelve-month period during 2010/2011. A number of groups were vociferous about this figure, particularly because of claims such as this from the Equality and Human Rights Commission:

If you are a black person, you are at least six times as likely to be stopped and searched by the police in England and Wales as a white person. If you are Asian, you are around twice as likely to be stopped and searched as a white person.
— Equality and Human Rights Commission

In 2013, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabularies (HMIC) produced a report about the use of stop-and-search for the Home Secretary. It consisted of a survey of 19,078 people, of which just 391 had been stopped and searched by police. They also canvassed the views of a thousand police officers.

The HMIC report claims to have found that ‘An alarming 27% (2,338)’ of stop-and-searches did not contain reasonable grounds to search people. It also says that people perceived that stop-and-search was unfair to black and ethnic minorities.

In April 2014, Theresa May, then the Home Secretary, told the House of Commons: 

I want to make myself absolutely clear: if the numbers do not come down, if stop-and-search does not become more targeted, if those stop-to-arrest ratios do not improve considerably, the government will return with primary legislation to make those things happen.
Nobody wins when stop-and-search is misapplied. It is a waste of police time. It is unfair, especially to young, black men. It is bad for public confidence in the police.
— Theresa May, Home Secretary, April 2014.

‘We aren’t out there looking through people's pockets.’ 

Theresa May had been on a collision course with the police ever since the Tory Government came to power in 2010.  She used every opportunity presented to her to berate, belittle and undermine them in support of savage budget cuts. Stop-and-search was one of the areas that she focused on.

By 2015, the numbers of stop-and-searches had fallen to 541,000, a drop of over 50% - the Home Secretary had got what she had asked for. Along with telling the police not to conduct searches, she also cut 20,000 police officers across the country. After all, they were just wasting time...

Everyone should have been happy? Police spending was down, police numbers were down, the numbers of stop-and-searches was down...

After the numbers of both police officers and stop-and-searches were reduced, knife crime started to rise. It was the first time since 2010 that it had risen.  

It was just 500 more that year though. Just 500 more victims, nothing to worry about.

Just five hundred more - like the dog walker, stabbed by a man who tried to rob him in the middle of Dulwich Park. 

However, by the end of 2016, there were nearly seven thousand more knife-crime victims as compared with the previous year. Knife crime has gone through the roof and we are now approaching a crisis point.

Every police officer and former police officer I know is saying the same thing, ‘It’s because we aren’t out there looking through people's pockets.’ 

None of the voices from police officers on the ground are being listened to. This knowledge is being totally ignored.

The government and those that have supported the reduction in the use of stop-and-search are now in total denial about the cause of the rise. They are trying to defend their stance, defend it with data which continues to suggest that the reduction in stop-and-search has made no difference. This data is highly questionable, at best. I don’t intend to pull the data apart here, but there are number of areas that simply do not make sense. The way the data sets have been compiled and examined are just two areas of concern for me.

And then that brings me to the question of the alleged racial profiling in stop-and-search, and for me this is where the problem began. Without the arguments of racial bias, we would never have arrived at this point.

All the reports that deal with numbers of non-white people searched in England and Wales use a simple mathematical model. The model assumes that all people are as likely to be stopped as anyone else. Therefore the probability of you being stopped, whether black or white, should theoretically be the same. Therefore, as the model goes, the police are racist because of the numbers of non-white people stopped.

Searches are not conducted in a uniform way nationwide.

Simplistic model

First of all - this is a ridiculously simplistic model and it is simply not fit for purpose. Searches are not actually conducted in a uniform way across the entire country. How many searches are there carried out in a quiet residential road, that sees little or no crime in the suburbs, in comparison to how many searches are carried out on a busy high street plagued by robberies, for example? What if all the people on that high street are non-white, should the police not search any of them at all? And what if the police officer conducting the stop-and-search is also from an ethnic minority - did we even consider factoring that into the equation?

This simplistic statistical model takes no account of the times of day that people are stopped, their age groups, where they were when they were stopped, what they were doing when they were stopped…

Is a 70-year-old woman doing her shopping in Tesco, as likely to be stopped and searched as the teenager hiding in the bushes of the park, waiting to rob a dog walker?

And what about the statistics of the British national prison population, 10% are black and 6% are Asian. For Black Britons, this is significantly higher than the 2.8% of the general population they represent. In the simplistic world of statistics we could say that black people are five times as likely to be involved in crime as their white counterparts, then?

But that isn’t even telling the whole story. These statistics and figures hide very different realities on the ground.

You can make statistics say whatever you want - and that’s the problem - there is agenda at play here. Single issue pressure groups have built a ‘police are racist with their stop-and-search’ narrative, in an attempt to gain government funding for their own projects. These groups don’t represent the dog walker in the park, they don’t represent anyone but themselves. Moreover, they assist the man hiding in the bushes at the park by misrepresenting the police. The Tories have adopted their narrative and selective figure work because it suited them, suited their agenda, to beat the police up when they’ve wanted to denigrate them during budget cuts.

The effect, just another seven thousand knife-crime victims.

We hear screaming from these same pressure groups now, not because there are too many searches, but because young black men are being knifed to death at an alarming rate by other young black men.

...take some ownership of the cause of this mess.

Now they scream for funding to carry out education projects, better housing projects, lifting people out of poverty projects - as they say these are the real causes of knife crime.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m sure the causes run deep and will take a long time to eradicate. But take some ownership of the cause of this mess, and stop telling police officers or those with decades of experience what is needed here. Stop trying to defend the mess you have created. Stop telling people like me what is best.

The statisticians can play with numbers all they like, but they’ve either got their sums wrong, or someone is making the figures fit their own agenda.

Whatever it is, we need to do something fast.

The police are saying that enforcement is the only short term route forward. Not many of us like speed cameras, but wouldn't most people agree that they have been a useful tool in helping to reduce speeding and accidents on our roads? Stop-and-search is no different.

Maybe it's even time to listen to police officers on the ground, before it’s too late?

Crime fighter turned crime writer.

David Videcette is a Scotland Yard detective turned author. His thrillers, based on true events, support the work of The Police Dependants' Trust. Click below to learn more.