Growing up, I hated stop and search—now, increasing its use could be a matter of life and deathby Hashi Mohamed / April 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
This week I had a conversation with my sister about her youngest, a teenage boy. He’s calm and quiet, obedient and minds his own business. I am sure he will never get into trouble of his own volition. He has never had any issues with the police, and has never been suspended from school; never involved in the kind of scuffle you might expect from teenage boys.
But my nephew is a black Somali boy growing up in a rough part of North West London. He is a teenager who has a particular type of haircut and with a preferred dress code of a tracksuit set, trainers, a trendy jacket with a fur hoodie (though his is not the ubiquitous Canada Goose). But, while this helps him fit in with his peer group, it also makes him a walking target—not only for those on the streets seeking to protect their turf patches but also for the police.
I know I am not the only person having these conversations with young teenagers. My aunt is having the same conversations with her sons, checking precisely when they go to school and when they return. Teachers are having meetings about their most ‘at risk’ boys in their school. Community meetings and leaders may concentrate on what the police are doing, or not doing, or what this spike in knife crime has to do with drugs—but privately there is simply despair at how we are going to keep our young people safe.
At the time of writing, 50 people have been killed in London this year so far.
That means nearly one person is dying violently every other day in the capital. The majority of them are young black boys, most of whom have been murdered by other black boys now facing long jail sentences if they have been apprehended. This is now of epidemic proportions. Mothers on all sides are weeping for the loss of their sons, but they’re also crying for drastic action to stabilise a serious situation. Their voices are either not being heard beyond the wailing or they’re willfully being ignored. The murder rate in London, we are told, is higher than New York City.
David Lammy MP, the Member of Parliament for Tottenham where four young people have been killed since Christmas, has spoken about the booming cocaine market in London worth billions, the turf wars between gangs, with children as young as 12, 13 being recruited to run drugs. The Metropolitan Police Chief, Cressida Dick, has also spoken about the impact of social media in the glorification of violence. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, at odds with his Labour colleagues, has pledged £15m in extra funding and called for a significant increase in stop and search.
I agree with him.
I know what the misuse of stop and search looked and felt like. I grew up in Brent in North West London in the nineties and noughties and was a victim of it growing up; we used to call it walking while black. I am not arguing for the return of a discriminatory, unintelligent stop and search policy. We need policing which is intelligence-led and does not criminalise kids.
It is also self-evident that we need to think more deeply about the ways those at risk of becoming victim to or perpetuating violence, and the wider community, interact with law enforcement, and crucially how those interactions can affect change and build trust on both sides. Better and more diverse recruitment is still required and should be effective in the longer term.
But the fact remains that in absolute terms there were more arrests for possessions of weapons in 2010 than there were in 2016. And in 2018, children are still dying unnecessary and violent deaths on our streets. I have spoken to police borough commanders who say privately that the changes to stop and search have meant a key resource available to them has been taken away. Faced with the current epidemic, I am forced to believe in the potential of the police to use stop and search in a productive way, without a wholesale return to the past. The police are there to protect and serve everyone. There is no reason why increased stop and search could not be used effectively and respectfully. We can all work together towards holding the police to account in achieving this.
“This is not a party political issue; this is—quite literally—a life and death issue”
Politicians need to get a grip. This is not a party political issue; this is—quite literally—a life and death issue. It is bigger than just the London Mayor, it is not just about police cuts or a Home Secretary issue. The current state of affairs is so grave that we cannot afford to engage in the luxury of debating inconclusive analysis relating to the precise impact of the recent changes to the use of stop and search. And I fear we have reached the point where we have to choose between the potential further deterioration of relations between young black boys and the Metropolitan Police on the one hand, and a few more sons still breathing on the other.
Of course, there are multiple issues contributing to this crisis. High youth unemployment, in particular amongst young black people, is adding fuel to the fire, combined with high (and questionable) exclusion rates from schools; in part a consequence of disaffection with authorities, and criminalisation early on. The instant gratification gained with easy money from the drug trade, amplified through social media bragging, has only exacerbated the core issues facing communities which have been long neglected; the lack of male role models, absent fathers and cuts to resources for the young across London.
It also seems likely that the Metropolitan Police have simply failed to get a grip on the situation, and—as Lammy has also said—that the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister are failing to act. No one seems to want to show leadership as every morning we wake up to news of another violent death. There are also questions of how these deaths are perceived by wider society: just last month, Martin Hewitt, Met Police Assistant Commissioner, said that knife crimes aren’t causing the outrage they should because the majority of victims come from black communities. He is right. He said that two weeks ago, 26 people had been killed in London then; that figure has since doubled. For shame.
As a lawyer, I am always of the view that knee-jerk legislation is never a good idea. But all options must be on the table: the situation on the ground is a genuine emergency and real action desperately needed. If this sounds hyperbolic, let me give you an unremarkable example. In February of this year, Sadiq Aadam and another young man were senselessly murdered in Camden. Both were 20 years old. In September of last year, Sadiq’s brother Mohamed was hacked to death in the middle of the day—also in Camden. Retaliation hours after also took another young life.
I can already hear the howls of disagreement. I don’t care. Enough of this bloodshed and loss of so much young life; I want my nephew to live his best life. I don’t want my cousins to die. We need to wake up. If we don’t take drastic measures now when will we?