Boris Johnson says stop-and-search policy ‘kind and loving’ way to get weapons off streets

Black people are 18 times more likely to be stopped than white people under controversial blanket search power

Adam Forrest,Lizzie Dearden
Tuesday 27 July 2021 20:18
Boris Johnson says stop and search policy is 'kind and loving'

Boris Johnson has defended his plan to expand blanket stop-and-search powers for police forces – insisting it was a “kind and loving” way to get dangerous weapons off the streets.

The prime minister also said he wanted to see more “chain gangs” of people found guilty of antisocial behaviour out cleaning the streets in hi-vis jackets.

Campaigners have condemned the plan to widen the power to stop and search people without suspicion, deemed by many experts to be both “ineffective” and racially disproportionate.

But the prime minister insisted that stop and search remained “an important part in fighting crime” – and claimed parents of knife crime victims were among the most supportive of the policy.

Mr Johnson said: “I think that giving the police the backing that they need in law to stop someone, to search them, to relieve them of a dangerous weapon – I don’t think that’s strong-arm tactics, I think that’s a kind and a loving thing to do.”

Speaking to reporters at Surrey Police headquarters, the prime minister added: “The people who often support stop and search most passionately are the parents of the kids who are likely themselves to be the victims of knife crime.

“I disagree with the opponents of stop and search ... They are not the only tool that we have got to use. They are part of a range of things we have got to do to fight street crime.”

The government’s “beating crime plan” includes a permanent relaxation of conditions on the use of section 60 stop-and-search powers, under which officers can search anyone – without suspicion they are carrying a weapon or drugs – in an area where serious violence is expected.

The Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA), a network of 160 organisations, said “ineffective” section 60 searches had led to “thousands of innocent people being unnecessarily stopped and searched every year”.

Home Office figures show that in the year to March 2020, only 4 per cent of section 60 stop and searches resulted in an arrest, compared with 13 per cent for searches requiring reasonable suspicion that someone has a weapon, drugs or stolen property.

Across all stop and search powers, black people are nine times more likely to be stopped than white people, and the rate is even higher – 18 times – for section 60.

Available figures suggest weapons are found in only 1 per cent of blanket searches and a government study of an operation using the power found “no statistically significant crime-reducing effect from the large increase in weapons searches”.

The StopWatch campaign group said that section 60 searches had been increasing over the past two years, despite “pathetic” arrest figures.

Habib Kadiri, research and policy manager at StopWatch, told The Independent: “There is also a huge racial disparity in stops between white and black people, which the government tries to explain away as a lifesaving measure for individuals living in ‘high crime areas’, but evidence currently available suggests that where most section 60 stops are conducted – London – police are less likely to find a weapon on black people than on white people.”

Mr Kadiri accused the government of making policy announcements on crime and justice “in bad faith rather than with good evidence”.

Lib Dem peer Brian Paddick, former deputy assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, said: “This is an outrageous move that flies in the face of the evidence. Research shows ramping up stop and search doesn’t reduce violent crime.”

He added: “The restrictions on section 60 are there for good reason, not least because you’re 13 times more likely to be stopped and searched if you’re black, if the police are allowed to stop and search at random."

The plans are an extension of a 2019 pilot that allowed police to relax the grounds needed to impose section 60 searches, meaning that they could use the power more frequently.

A government press release said the change would “empower police to take more knives off the streets”, but an evaluation of the pilot’s effects has never been published.

The Home Office said an assessment had been completed, but no decision had been reached on publication, adding: “An assessment of the pilot relaxing conditions on the use of section 60 stop and search showed it gave police officers greater confidence to make use of the power, better reflected the realities and uncertainties officers face on the ground around predicting serious violence, and acted as a deterrent.”

The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said the government should be transparent about any potential for disproportionality.

“It’s vital with any new powers comes proper oversight, especially as building community trust is so vital to tackling crime,” he said.

Mr Johnson said he wanted to see more hi-vis “chain gangs” doing unpaid work on the streets to act as a deterrent to people getting involved in anti-social behaviour.

“I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society. So you are going to be seeing more of that as well.”

The human rights groups Liberty said: “Talk of chain gangs shows this plan has nothing to do with making communities safer. It’s designed to create more stigma and division; a short-term stunt that will cause long-term generational harm.”

An expert in criminal rehabilitation has said the government’s plans to expand community service may not reduce reoffending as much as other methods.

Tom Gash, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, said “much more impact” could be had with skills training and drug treatment than with the proposals launched by the PM today.

He added: “When you speak to people and do qualitative research with people who have committed offences and done high-visibility community service they tend to say they feel feelings of shame, which aren’t necessarily positive.”

Mr Johnson also defended his proposal to make sure all victims of crime have a named police officer – saying his government “plans to back the police but also to back the public”.

The prime minister said: “What you need is somebody who understands what’s going on in your neighbourhood, who understands who the likely miscreants are, who understands whether the thing you are reporting – the crime that you are experiencing – is a one-off or part of a trend.”

Labour dismissed the pledge as a “gimmick”. The opposition claimed there was nothing significantly new in the idea, or the wider plan – accusing the government of being “soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime”.

The Police Federation, the body representing rank-and-file officers, has also attacked the government over the recent pay freeze, passing a motion of no confidence in home secretary Priti Patel last week.

In a letter delivered to Downing Street on Tuesday afternoon, the Police Federation said it had found out about the beating crime plan in a Sunday newspaper and was not consulted.

“We don’t need old ideas presented as new. We need genuine investment for the whole of the criminal justice system and genuine consultation over new ideas. Without that, this is just another ill-thought-out initiative,” the letter added. “Police officers are sick of gimmicks.”

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