Time to bring the data in for questioning

I began writing this blog in response to the recent suggestion that London had become more dangerous than New York based on their respective homicide rates. Since then, four more people have been shot or stabbed in the capital – flowers on street corners, MPs on the Today programme.

The fatal shooting of 17-year-old Tanesha Melbourne-Blake, apparently an innocent bystander, has attracted particular attention and brought a few points I was going to make into sharper focus.

Firstly, people should not be surprised by the fact that a teenager in London could be shot dead because she was, seemingly, in the wrong place – or rather in the wrong crowd – at the wrong time. Horrified, yes – but surprised? No.

Why?

Because it happens quite frequently.

A few years ago, when I was a crime reporter, a senior officer in the Metropolitan Police was quite candid (in a pub) about the facts of gun crime.

“I’ve looked at the circumstances of the fatal shootings we investigate and by my reckoning around one in three people shot dead in London each year are not intentionally targeted.”

The officer explained what they meant by this.

“It could be mistaken identity, it could be a stray bullet or it could be that they were part of a group standing around and someone in the group was the intended target but the shooter just opened up at the whole lot of them – they weren’t individually targeted, they were just there and got hit.”

When I suggested this was not un-newsworthy, the response was quick.

“We are never going to say this publicly because it sends a pretty worrying message – and I will deny ever saying it to you.”

Hoping to find another way to stand this story up, I asked the Met for any analysis about the victimology or circumstances of fatal shootings under freedom of information. None existed, I was told.

I was surprised, to say the least, that an organisation which spent millions on tackling gun and gang crime did not routinely interrogate the data it was holding and provide some basic headline analysis, if only for internal purposes or for briefing stakeholders. So, using Met press releases, witness appeals and inquest and trial reports, I pieced together the figures for the years 2007 to 2012. My friendly officer was right. In every year, at least a third of the people shot dead in London were not intentionally or individually targeted – and in some years the figure was nearly a half.

I have no idea if the figures have changed since my rudimentary analysis. But then I doubt the Met, the Home Office, the College of Policing (or anybody else) has much more an idea either. If they do, they don’t appear to be saying.

And that is my second point.

Tanesha Melbourne-Blake’s killing has, not unreasonably, attracted significant public and political attention. The debate around gun and knife crime will surely intensify if (or should that be when?) the homicide rate increases in the summer months. Already, the suggestion London is now more dangerous than New York is gaining traction based on what may yet prove a statistical blip (one which ignores the fact that the difference between a GBH and a murder can be ambulance response time as much as the level of violence). But before we pin the blame on police cuts or social media or the international drugs trade or the scaling back of stop and search (and I’m not saying some or all of these aren’t significant factors), it would be helpful to have more evidence of the drivers and circumstances of homicide and serious violence in London.

Who are the victims and who the offenders? What is their age, their gender, their ethnicity, and employment/education status etc.? What other agencies have they had prior contact with? What are the circumstances of the crimes? The geography and time of offences? In the case of homicides, does the background go back minutes, months or years? Those who provide policing’s governance are entitled to know that the police are allocating their scarce resources on robust evidence not custom and practice (let alone publicity-driven “Big Wings” ). Police officers are good at sharing headline-friendly anecdotal evidence. However, forces frequently appear less able to share quantitative evidence of the bigger picture – the type of information which wins arguments with policymakers, Ministers, and, via the media, the public. Without answers to these types of questions, our collective concern about serious violence will merely amplify long-running arguments about police numbers or stop and search rather than produce a sustainable long-term solution to a problem which has deep roots.

Before anybody starts, nobody is suggesting detectives prioritise crunching numbers above making arrests. But given the scale of the serious violence problem, understanding all the dimensions of what is a multi-faceted problem is essential. John Sutherland, former MPS Chief Superintendent, and author of Blue: A Memoir, has talked of the need for a 25-year plan to tackle knife and gun crime. Better suppression of violence at street level will inevitably be part of this, particularly in the short term. But longer term the underlying causes must be addressed. Until we know what these causes are, however, it will be very difficult to get councils, schools and social services, among others, to allocate their scarce resources or share the risk. It is in the police’s own interests to analyse this information and disseminate the findings. Crest’s experience with a number of forces and Police and Crime Commissioners suggests it’s not that difficult to bring in outside support to help to turn this around quickly.

Ten years ago, crime topped the Ipsos-MORI Index of Issues of Public Concern, driven by outrages such as the shooting of Liverpool schoolboy Rhys Jones and a summer of stabbings in London. The Home Office, City Hall and the MPS responded with Operation Blunt 2 – a three-year programme of visible policing which saw the number of weapons searches treble in ten London boroughs. Serious violence duly fell, though it’s unclear how much this was due to Blunt 2. It began to rise in 2016 (as the ever helpful Gavin Hales has shown here) long after Blunt 2 finished.

Debating the merits or otherwise of upscaling stop and search has become an industry in itself and I’m not looking to enter the market – but here are two hard facts:

  • In 2008/9, there were 432 police officers per 100,000 people living in London.
  • In 2016/17, there were 366 police officers per 100,000 people living in London.

Replicating Operation Blunt (and whatever less visible proactive policing took place ten years ago) may be impractical, irrespective of the politics. If the police, City Hall, local authorities, the courts and probation have substantially fewer resources than a decade ago, they will have to target them with unprecedented precision – perhaps even pool them? That would suggest it’s time to bring the data in for questioning, to see what it tells us and to build a compelling case for what needs to change – if necessary in the court of public opinion.

Yes, some of the facts about serious violence might alarm the public. But nothing sends out a more worrying message than a sense that nobody quite knows why something bad is happening nor who is going to do what to stop it.

 

Jon Clements

Jon Clements

Director of Development

As Director of Development, Jon draws on nearly two decades experience in public affairs, the media and criminal justice to ensure Crest offers clients the support they need to achieve their goals. A former national newspaper and broadcast journalist, Jon leads on Crest’s positioning and oversees the development of new business and marketing.