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10 Aug 2017

Rising knife crime – is “stop and search” the answer?

The Home Office recently announced that there has been a dramatic rise in crime figures, in particular those relating to blade offences which have risen by 24% despite efforts made by the Metropolitan Police to tackle the problem. Cressida Dick, having recently taken up her new position as Chief Commissioner, stated that knife crime will be a huge focus of her tenure and has yesterday encouraged the increased use of “stop and search” powers across the force.

In 2014, whilst in her role as Home Secretary, Theresa May was concerned that stop and search powers were being used disproportionately against black and ethnic minority communities. As a consequence she proposed a number of reforms to scale back the use of police stop and search powers. This week Cressida Dick fortified the use of stop and search and stated that it is an “extremely important power when properly used”. The Chief Commissioner is encouraging this power to be used more frequently and widely in the current climate of acid attacks and an increase in knife crime but will have to ensure that searches are being carried out properly and fairly to avoid any criticism of misuse amongst the force.

An officer is entitled to stop and search under Police and Criminal Evidence Act (“PACE”) Code A if they have reasonable grounds for suspecting that they will find; stolen articles, offensive weapons, an article for use in burglary/theft/taking a car/fraud/criminal damage, a bladed article, a prohibited firework or a controlled drug. However, in recent times, the use of this power has diminished for a number of reasons, in particular police officers fearing complaints of racism. The perception that ethnic minorities are subject to “stop and search” more than any other community is evidenced by Home Office figures released last year showing that black people were six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. This is an issue that Cressida Dick will need to address if she wishes for her officers to regain confidence in using this power again. The introduction of body worn cameras will provide an added layer of protection for both officers and those subject to searches. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, announced on 18 July 2017 a number of new proposals to combat the ever growing crime rates which include the creation of new offences to tackle these issues.

Rudd’s main objectives are to address the issue of online sales of knives and to ban possession of dangerous or offensive weapons on private property. The proposed method to tackle the problem of online sales of knives would require anyone who is purchasing a knife online to collect it in person from a retailer who will then be responsible for checking the age of the customer.

The existing law provides a defence to a person selling a knife or certain articles with a blade or point to a persons under 18, if they prove that they took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence. Like many criminal defences, the law does not prescribe what is ‘reasonable’ with regards to such precautions, nor does it establish the level of due diligence required. As such, it is impossible to say for certain whether the recipient’s signature, as is current usual practice when delivering an item to a residential address, as well as warnings at the point of sale that such items are not for sale to under-18s, constitutes sufficient precautions or due diligence. It could be argued that the burden to confirm the age of the buyer has been passed to the person delivering the item and it may be that this person is not an employee of the retailer, but rather a contractor. In such cases, the seller will have more difficulty in establishing that it has done enough to invoke the defence. The new measures will look to address this by making the retailer responsible for the direct handover of the item, and therefore responsible for satisfying themselves as to the age of the buyer.

It is also proposed that it become an offence for a person to be in possession of an outlawed weapon on private property. On 18 August 2016 the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) (Amendment) Order 2016 made the sale, manufacture or importation of a zombie knife an offence that carried a maximum sentence of up to 4 years imprisonment. These knives had featured in a number of highly publicised cases, such as the murder of Stefan Appleton who was murdered in Hackney in June 2015. Zombie knives are one of the outlawed weapons the proposals would seek to criminalise, along with knuckledusters and ‘throwing stars’. The current limitations of the law is that these cannot be seized from anyone until they are found in the possession of a person in a public place. The new proposals would allow the police to enter a property in order to seize the knife. Although, this would require careful consideration when drafting to ensure that those who keep such weapons for legitimate purposes are not punished.

Rudd also proposes widening the legislation of possession of a knife in a public place, to extend to higher education institutes. At present the Criminal Justice Act 1988 states that a person found guilty of selling an offensive weapon to a person under the age of 18 can receive a fine of up to £5,000 or six months imprisonment, or both. Whereas, the same legislation states that a person who is found to sell a lottery ticket or a scratch card to a person under 16 can face up to two years imprisonment, as well as a fine. This raises questions as to whether the focus of the proposals should be on increasing the available sentences for the offences currently on the legislative books rather than introducing new offences.

The question arises as to whether the culmination of both an increase in “stop and search” powers being used and an introduction of new legislation, are the right answer to combating the rising rates of crimes relating to weapons. It should be noted that neither proposal addresses the root cause of why knives are routinely carried in public, in particular by youths.

As a separate proposal to combat knife crime, the Metropolitan Police is to set up a community reference group which Neville Lawrence, the father of Stephen Lawrence, is to chair. His many ambitions for the group include changing the ways in which police approach communities and in turn changing communities’ perceptions of the police through education.

The wider use of stop and search powers and the will to create further legislation from Amber Rudd may result in further hostility and lack of trust between communities and police in areas where these offences are most prevalent. Perhaps the better approach would be for the Metropolitan Police to engage more in community groups such as the one to be chaired by Neville Lawrence where education and communication are the key ideas, which in turn may start to instil confidence back into communities and in turn help lower the crime rates.

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