LET’S TALK: Police are the wrong agency

This presentation was given at the fifth and final Forum of 2019 at the Harris Academy Peckham when each member of the Panel was given three minutes to present their thoughts, views, and news regarding their own position on Knife Crime having listened to our local young people. Malte Laub is an academic based at King’s College London.

‘My name is Malte, I have done research here in Peckham and other parts of south London about knife violence, policing, and crime more generally.

I learned many things from our talks, but maybe most importantly that we think of knife crime too much in police and crime terms and that it is time for us to stop doing that.

So, I want to use my three minutes to be a bit provocative and make a case against the police as a tool against knife crime. We should challenge our reflex to hear knife crime and think police.

So why do I think this?

Well, firstly, because many of you have told us that you are afraid of the police:

One year-nine student shared his experiences being G-checked, so being stopped and harassed by a gang member, and in the next sentence compared this to police stop-and-searches. This is what the student said, it was in answer to the question if he felt safe with the police on the street.

it doesn’t really make me feel safe. I mean they are around. They can stop me from getting G-checked, they can stop the person eventually that will come to me to ask me for my stuff. But they stop and search me. I don’t know what the difference is. Because if they can ask me what I have, people who G-check me what I have, the police are doing the exact same thing.’

One of the let’s talk groups more or less collectively said they would change the side of the road when they saw a police officer coming towards them.

I know that this is not to say that everyone feels that way. One student even suggested that everyone should be stopped and searched because it helps to take knifes of the streets and that is certainly true to an extent. But generally, many of you were quite critical of the police, especially the older years. A group of year-eleven students were particularly clear of that. They said they would not talk to the police, because gangs might find out about this.[1] They also said that the police would be stopping and searching the wrong people, that they would be too aggressive, and they would be present in the wrong circumstances, namely after something happened.[2]

[1] Chris: would you not agree that if you were to speak to the police and it could be kept anonymous, that could be helpful?
Girl I: Nuh-uh.
Chris: it wouldn’t be helpful to speak and advise the police? Why not?
Girl I: Because if you give..
Chris: but how are they going to know what is happening on the ground?
Girl I: Ok say if we knew a person that keeps stuff in their house. We go to the police and say, “oh, I know this person who keeps this stuff in their house with this person, this person and this person. If it’s a secret, and you release the secret that only certain people know, they will find out somehow who did it. Plus you see how you guys can kind of see behaviour in people? They can also see behaviour in people. They are already intimidated, so they are going to see that something is up, something is wrong, so …

[2] So basically I want to add to what he says, so I think like sometimes the person is innocent, and like the police would push them down and everything.   _____ it hurts but the police don’t listen. I just think it’s kind of stupid that they’re all like aggressive towards them, if that makes sense, because they’r going to stop but they keep on doing;
Girl II: [Policeman], I’m very sorry I’m not into the police
Policeman: No, it’s alright
Girl II: I’m not saying they’re stupid, they’re just not doing the right thing, if you know what I mean. No, you’re doing the right thing, but
Boy: You’re doing it the wrong way

Girl II: yeah, it’s difficult. For example, you see the police ___ . I see them on the street, like on the street outside like where it’s clear (?) and you think like you’re going to catch gang members, like people with knives on the street. You’re just going to see them and they’re just going to walk right past you and say “I have a knife” like for what knife?

So, we can think of that whatever we like, but we have to acknowledge that the police are a source of distress for many young people in south London. And if the last student is right, then we also have to think about effectiveness.

But there is another reason why we should stop the association knife crime – police.

You told us how complex the causes for knife violence are.

You told us about how there is nothing to do after school. Youths clubs have closed, football on the astro turf costs 5 pounds per person and hour. You told us how people get in contact with gangs because they can only hang out on the streets. And the gangs promise adventure. But they also promise money, new trainers, and protection. At the same time, you told us about how you felt there were only limited legal opportunities for you and your peers. One student said that people dream of being a doctor but at some point they realise that this is not going to happen.

There is a third point, too.

Yesterday, I went to a talk at the Southbank University up at the Elephant. There was a professor from New York City and he studies gangs there. He told us, the main reasons for people to fall into gang crime are

  1. Anger
  2. Frustration
  3. Hopelessness
  4. Powerlessness
  5. Economic Despair

Which one of these factors do the police fight? None. But a stop and search might make you angry, frustrate you and make you feel powerless. We know of the alienating effects of stop and search, at least since Stephen Lawrence we know about institutional racism, and we know about the effects of anti-social behaviour orders on young people. Considering all of this, our concern should not be to integrate the police better into the communities. Our concern should be to get the police out of communities.

Because who can fight these factors of the professor? A social worker can. A job can. Education can. Good housing conditions can. A strong, empowered community can.

This is why I suggest we stop talking so much about the police when we talk about knife violence and rather reduce their role.

This does not mean that I suggest that we abandon communities, and it also does not mean that this is something we can do tomorrow. But it means a shift in our preferences. In our efforts to tackle knife crime, we have to invest into communities, not community policing. We have to fund education, we have to make sports and arts facilities easier accessible, we have to improve housing conditions, and we also have to give people employment opportunities.

Now you might say that this exceeds our possibilities and it might. But we need to acknowledge that to get rid of knife violence we need to look at all levels, from the individual, to the community, to the big policy level. I chose to focus on the latter. We need empowered communities, and we don’t empower communities with more stop and search, we empower them with better living conditions, better education, better employment. So, what can we do? We can start lobbying for these ideas tomorrow, in our institutions, amongst our friends, in writing to our MPs and, indeed, on the local level. And we need to start here, but we must not stop here.