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Knife crime and stop and search – missing the point?

By Katherine Copperthwaite, Policy Officer at the CJA

The recent rise in knife crime has led to wide public debate about how best to tackle the issue. Stop and search is once again in the limelight. Critics of the recent reduction in stop and search (from well over a million to 300,000 searches per year) claim it has contributed to the increase in knife crime.

But this seductive conclusion ignores the evidence, draws unproven links and critically shifts the focus from the key facts about stop and search – its disproportionate use against black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people and its negative impact on police/community relations.

Only a very small number of searches – just 11 per cent – are for offensive weapons and the tactic’s effectiveness in recovering knives is low. Out of 300,000 searches last year, only 4,000 – 1.4 per cent – resulted in an offensive weapon being recovered in a search for an offensive weapon.

Critics also claim the threat of stop and search alone acts as a deterrent, but on this claim too there is insubstantial evidence. The Home Office’s 2016 report into Operation BLUNT 2 – which saw weapon searches more than triple in ten prioritised London boroughs – found ‘no statistically significant crime-reducing effect from the large increase in weapons searches’. Research from New York has similarly been unable to show a correlation between stop and search and violent crime.

Focussing on knife crime in a public discussion about stop and search distracts the debate from the growing disproportionality in its use against BAME people. A BAME person in 2015 was ‘only’ twice as likely to be searched as a white person but is now nearly four times as likely be searched.

In particular, a black person is now over eight times as likely to be searched, up from six times last year. When looking only at searches for offensive weapons, a black person is 19 times more likely to be searched than a white person, yet the rate of finding a knife following a search is similar for both white people and black people.

Interviews conducted by the CJA with young BAME people aged 15-25 on their experiences of stop and search show the intense depth of negative feelings that a stop and search can invoke: feelings of victimisation, humiliation and harassment. Further, a YouGov poll commissioned by the CJA of over 500 young BAME people in England and Wales aged 16-30 found that nearly three quarters think their communities are unfairly targeted by stop and search and nearly two fifths have less trust in the police because of stop and search.

Treating stop and search as a solution to knife crime risks taking the spotlight away from responses which have been shown to work – such as Scotland’s ‘health issue’ approach – and promotes a tactic which has little evidence as to its effectiveness but significant evidence as to its damaging, corrosive impact on police/community relations.