Mugging: criminal or political offence?

London's police finally launched Eagle Eye yesterday. Nicholas Timmins assesses whether the controversy will have been justified
"It is a fact that very many of the perpetrators of mugging are very young black people" - Sir Paul Condon, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, in his letter to 40 mainly black community leaders and MPs at the beginning of July.

Is Sir Paul right? No one much disputes his claim in relation to London. The established evidence on which the assertion is based, however, is fairly ropey - and far from open to public scrutiny. When asked to amplify, Sir Paul has said variously that 70 or 80 per cent of muggings are carried out by blacks, his figures coming from a survey, the full details of which Scotland Yard has refused to release.

The figures are based on victims' reports of the colour of their attacker - which begs questions about who you describe as "black". According to Sir Paul, 20 of London's 62 police divisions have a significant problem: and in those areas - chiefly the inner city from Stoke Newington to Lewisham to Brixton to Notting Hill and Kilburn - between 60 and 90 per cent of victims describe their attackers as black. Condon has put the average for London at 70 per cent. But it is far from clear that there are any reliable figures for the outer boroughs.

The problems with these figures don't end there. Criminologists and sociologists say whites are more likely than blacks to report offences, black distrust of the police lowering their reporting rate. Professor Jock Young, a criminologist at Middlesex University, has argued that 50- 60 per cent of street crimes are reported, and white people are far more likely to report an offence carried out by a black person than the reverse.

Despite these reservations, however, few dispute the thrust of Sir Paul's argument.

Nationally, are most muggers young blacks? No. Other big cities do not have racially related figures, or if the police do collect them, they do not release them. But in Newcastle and Glasgow, cities with few blacks, mugging is a white offence. It is also largely a crime of inner cities. Professor Young has argued: "Street robbery is the most amateurish crime and therefore likely to be committed by the poorest people. While they are likely to be black in London, they will almost certainly be white in Newcastle."

So, it's not a racially related offence? No. Again, the statistics, like so many crime statistics, are not good. But the 1987 and 1991 British Crime Surveys suggest - on a tiny sample - that, nationally, most muggings are white on white or black on black.

Is mugging a significant offence? Not numerically. Last year in London 33,000 "street crimes" - a definition which extends beyond mugging - were reported, out of 837,000 crimes. That's about 4 per cent. Fraud and forgery accounted for as many offences and much more money, and five times more car crime and burglaries were reported, than muggings.

Why has the Commissioner brought this issue up then? Because mugging has doubled in London in 10 years. In the first six months of this year alone there were 20,000 street crimes. In addition, both police and independent surveys show that it rates after burglary as the crime people most fear. The Metropolitan police have already targeted burglary with some success, with Operation Bumblebee.

Who carries out burglaries? Mainly whites. But when Operation Bumblebee was launched, Sir Paul did not call together leaders of the white community to warn that large numbers of whites might be being arrested.

Why raise race in relation to muggings? History. The immediate trigger of the 1981 Brixton riots was Operation Swamp, a massive "stop and search" operation which disproportionally affected blacks. After those riots, Alec Marnoch, the local police commander, pointed out that most muggings in the area were black. Then, in 1982, Sir Kenneth Newman, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, caused an outcry by suggesting that young blacks of Jamaican parentage were "constitutionally inclined" to violence.

Truly dire relations between the police and young blacks in the early Eighties have been slowly and painfully improved by much community work and more sensitive policing. Commissioner Condon wanted to preclude such trouble this time by raising the issue with community leaders at a meeting before the arrests from Operation Eagle Eye began.

Sir Paul was also careful to say that while the perpetrators might mainly be young and black, many were also people "who have been excluded from school and/or are unemployed. I am sure I do not need to spell out the sensitivity of dealing with this crime problem, which is, of course, much more than a police problem."

What went wrong? Dreadful public relations. The letter of invitation to the meeting reached the media before it got to some of the recipients.

Who were the recipients? The list has not been disclosed. But some are known because they announced they were boycotting last Friday's meeting, among them the MPs Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant. Some gave as the reason that Condon had called the meeting on the second anniversary of Joy Gardiner's death. But some of those who refused to go have met Condon in private since his letter and will attend meetings with him later.

What was the reaction? More complex than might appear at first sight. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Runnymede Trust race research organisation, initially said the commissioner's letter was "dangerously inflammatory". Bernie Grant, the Tottenham MP, said his comments were "a licence for racists. People will just think that every young black person is a mugger." But neither he, nor Paul Boateng, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, accused Condon of being racist. They don't believe he is. Boateng adopted a subtler line of attack: "You can produce the same facts that show that the overwhelming majority of city fraud is committed by white, middle- aged upper class males." Trevor Phillips went on to say: "Our young men are in trouble, and some of it is of our own making ... London's black community is more aware than anyone else, including the police, of the scale of the crisis among black youth." Leaked Home Office figures, he said, showed 15.8 per cent of black 16 to 24-year-olds had committed some street crime, "but so had 14.1 per cent of white men". In other words, Condon has caused a furore, but not, as yet, an explosion.

Why the restraint? Attitudes have matured on all sides. London's policing remains far from perfect - ask Linford Christie and Nigel Benn about their experiences of being stopped because they are blacks driving flash cars - but it is more sensitive than 10 years ago. In addition, Condon has been at pains to underline he is not planning another Operation Swamp; this is to be a targeting, surveillance and intelligence-gathering approach like that which contributed to Operation Bumblebee's success. Amid imperfect, if improving relations, community leaders have realised the damage that over-inflammatory language can produce.

Has everyone shown such maturity? No. The man who has most played obvious politics with this is Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, who has proved adept at singling out minorities for attention - immigrants and single mothers, for example. He has been making firmly party political points about "political correctness" at anyone who questions the basis of the mugging figures.

And some black groups insist that this operation will mean "unrelenting police harassment of young black people".

What's been the net effect of this row? In some ways, a taboo has been broken by Condon insisting on talking about race and crime. The way he has done it, however, has left his remarks open to exploitation by the racist right and has damaged relations with a black community that is much more diverse and arguably less cohesive than at the time of the Brixton riots. There are many more second and third-generation black Britons, and a larger middle class. Black role models stretch far beyond the traditional escapes of football and boxing. Unemployment, however, remains awesome among young black Britons - 60 per cent in the parts of inner London that will be targeted in Operation Eagle Eye.

Condon may have mishandled his initiative, but he has still done better than his predecessors. He has underlined that the numbers involved are small and the causes are not to do with people being black. "It is not their blackness that has made them commit crime, but we cannot ignore the fact that many of the youngsters we are going to be arresting are going to be black." These people, he acknowledges, are "a very small percentage of black people".

What happens now? It depends how subtly Operation Eagle Eye is applied and how its success is to be judged. Too broad a sweep, and there could be trouble on the streets. If blacks alone are targeted, Condon will have turned his claim into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The West Midlands force is starting research on the involvement of different ethnic groups in street robberies. It is to be hoped they come up with better evidence than that which has produced the row in London.

A crime that's hard to define

Oxford English Dictionary: mug v. - rob with violence, esp. in a public place

The Home Office: there is no such registered crime. Its official Recorded Crime Statistics brackets it under "robbery", but gives no separate figures for muggings.

The Metropolitan Police: mugging, or "street crime" is a combination of i) theft/attempted theft from the person; ii) robbery/attempted robbery against the person and iii) assault against the person.

Makbool Javaid, Society of Black Lawyers: "It's a popular myth that the definition means the assailant has to be black. It's highly subjective: I don't think it's capable of definition beyond obtaining property with violence."