Leading Article: An Eagle Eye out of focus

It has been a great month for white muggers. These days, thanks to Sir Paul Condon, they have the advantage of surprise: few of us now expect a young white man to steal a handbag.

No doubt, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner did not intend to make the Fagins of the Nineties still more elusive. Yesterday, the purpose of his controversial remarks - that the overwhelming majority of muggings in London are committed by young black males - were made clearer. His comments were designed to prepare the way for a blitz on street crime.

The campaign is laudable, the manner in which it was prepared for badly misconceived.

By singling out black people as the major culprits, he stereotyped a whole community, encouraging white people to think of all young black males as potential muggers while at the same time putting black people on the defensive. His approach has damaged relations between the police and the black community, with most of the community's leaders refusing to discuss the issue with him. In polls prior to the controversy, 90 per cent of black people said that they did not trust the police: Sir Paul has only made that problem worse. Meanwhile Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has compounded the initial mistake by emphasising the culpability of young black males.

It is easy enough to understand what Sir Paul's thinking must have been when he made his remarks. The figures, which he has yet to publish and which are in any case of questionable validity, had convinced him that most muggings in London are committed by young black males. He wanted a clampdown along the lines of the well-regarded Operation Bumblebee, which targeted known burglars.

But Sir Paul had a problem. Facing a long hot summer, he was obviously worried that his officers, focusing their attention on black males, would be accused of racism. "Operation Eagle Eye", if badly handled, could provoke civil disturbances. His comments were an attempt to pre-empt trouble, by providing a sound statistical rationale for his force's actions. In the event, his judgement left much to be desired. Far from spotlighting the problem of mugging, his remarks focused attention on the responsibility of the black community.

Sir Paul could have handled it in a different way. He should have concentrated on the costs of street crime: the fear among people who dare not go out at night, the surrendering of neighbourhoods to criminals. He could have called in community organisations, including those representing Afro-Caribbeans, and described the plight of victims among them. We would all have been on his side.

The crime statistics show the merit of this approach. There is, it is estimated, a narrow group of 2,000 people who make their living from mugging. By contrast, the victims (40,000 people are expected to be mugged this year) reflect a broad community. In principle, Operation Eagle Eye is an excellent idea: in practice, it has been badly mishandled.