How has the stop and search policy changed crime in the UK?

Many of us are so focused on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that we’re failing to pay attention to other serious matters. We used VAYU to shed light on the knife crime epidemic, something that will only get worse before it gets better.

In March 2019, Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced plans for increasing police stop and search powers, to cut knife crime in key areas.

Since crime rates fell overall around 2013/15, the UK started to face a stark increase in knife-related crimes. There has been a 187% increase in knife-assisted rape in the 5 years up to December 2018. Assaults, robberies and threats are also plentiful and have been snowballing as the years pass by.

Knife crime in the UK has been spreading like wildfire, but unlike a wildfire, it won’t just burn through its fuel and fizzle out.

Combining data from The City of London and the Metropolitan Police Service, we can see that the number of charges for possession of a blade rose by 70.2% in just 3 years up to January-March 2019. Similar to the near three-fold increase in knife-assisted rape cases, increased reporting and rising awareness of the issues has played a significant role.

In response to reports of companies flaunting rules on the sales of knives, the National Trading Standards authority decided to investigate. In their mystery shopper survey, 15.4% of underage shoppers walked out of retailers having successfully purchased a knife. Perhaps even worse, 41% of online retailers they contacted failed to perform any age checks.

I performed a calculation using binomial probabilities, and the result is worrying, to say the least. If a 14-year-old wants to order a knife online, they will only have to visit 6 retailers to ensure a 95% probability of successfully purchasing a knife.

The stop and search policy

We combined freely released data from police forces on stop and search use in the capital city, London, to study both February 2019 and February 2020. Firstly, we looked at the take up of the new policy. Have London police forces increased their use of stop and search thanks to their new powers? Considerably.

Whilst being driven by a 28.7% and 43.9% increase for controlled drugs and stolen goods respectively, there was a 19.1% increase in offensive weapon searches.

There is clear evidence of a concerted effort to remove knives from streets, despite the increase in searches unrelated to knife crime.

As UK police release information on the officer-defined ethnicity of all suspects, we can study the racial distribution of its use. Historically, the policy has unfortunately been used to discriminate against people of color, most notably in the Black community.

In London, there was approximately an equal number of searches performed on Black people as White. This compares to 49.6% more searches on Black people by Los Angeles police and 556% more by New York police.

So, has the stop and search policy been helping to reduce crime in London?

Looking at the data on all crimes in London, there is little evidence the number or distribution of crimes has changed. Some may argue a plateau in the number of crimes committed is a result, but others may want more significant results from such a policy.

Where is knife crime occurring?

Crime is locational. To state that knife crime is increasing significantly within London is itself a sweeping generalization. Using the data on charges of possession from 2015 to 2020, we analyzed the number of charges by London authority.

There is great disparity in the number of possession cases across the London boroughs, with the highest levels found unsurprisingly in densely populated inner boroughs like Lambeth, Westminster and Southwark.

As a COVID-19 related side note (it really has become rooted in all aspects of our lives), there is a positive correlation between knife possession cases and COVID-19 cases across the London boroughs. Boroughs in the top 40% in population density cluster on the top right of the scatter graph and are really experiencing the worst of both crises.

COVID-19 cases up-to-date as of 04-28-2020

It is no surprise that both disease transmission and violent crime flourishes where people are more clustered. Croydon, Brixton, Peckham and Clapham. Each of these suburbs is facing a two-pronged attack on both their health and police services.

As crime is so locational, we need to understand whether the stop and search protocols are being utilized in the right areas of London. I used the map feature of VAYU to plot out every instance the stop and search procedure was carried out in February 2019 and 2020.

For the most part though, it seems the distribution of policing is specific, accurate and localized. As police attempt to focus increased attention on the more severely affected areas, we will see more and more specifically targeted searches. Hotspots like Croydon, Brixton and Peckham may see further heightening of police intervention if the problem is not stemmed soon.

What have we learned?

There is evidence here that suggests a more successful implementation of the stop and search policy than has been seen in the past. We have extracted hopeful signs from the data – the police are localizing their work effectively and crime seems to be plateauing.

It is promising that the increased powers have led to more searches for offensive weapons, yet questions could be asked about the significant rise in searches for unrelated purposes. Although as disappointing as it is that the policy is disproportionately affecting the Black community, there are signs that this imbalance is improving.

With COVID-19, we will not see the effects of this change play out in its entirety. Instead, we are seeing increases in domestic violence, cybercrime and lockdown-related breaches. Police funding and focus will be far from where we have seen in recent times. Furthermore, if the vaccine is continuously delayed and social distancing laws drag on, the future will become more and more unpredictable.

Will isolation keep knife crime levels low, or might the economic consequences of a recession result in a new wave of violent crime? If so, we may well find in 10 years’ time that A&E funding has spiked, forgetting that this occurred as a reactionary response to pandemics of both disease and knife crime alike.

Unpredictability is a challenge, but also a great opportunity for growth in learning to react to a changing social environment.

Source Data: Office for National Statistics, London Datastore, Public Health England

January 20, 2020
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