Can Stop-and-Frisk, discarded in New York, Bring Down London's Soaring Knife Crime?

Police officers on the scene following a stabbing in West Kensington on March 7, 2019 in London, England. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Britain is in the grips of the worst explosion of knife violence for generations, with London's murder rate last year briefly surpassing that of New York.

Many in the UK see the rule of law is a core British value, and this comparison to a city once so notorious for its high levels of crime proved an outrage too far. Conservative former London mayor Boris Johnson decreed it a "scandal," and wasted no time in calling for a return to "stop and search"—the gentler term Brits use for "stop and frisk"—to stem the bloodshed.

The use of stop and frisk in the UK fell sharply while now-prime minister Theresa May was running the Home Office, the department responsible for, among other things, law and order. There were a number of reasons: police budgets were slashed as the government imposed tight austerity following the 2008 financial crash, while allegations that stop-and-search was ineffective and prejudiced against ethnic minority communities made the approach even less attractive. There were 5 searches per 1,000 people in England and Wales in the financial year 2017/18, down from 23 incidents per 1,000 people in 2009/10.

Some of the same issues are starting to become talking points in New York, where the homicide rate has jumped 55 percent at the beginning of this year. This is a setback for the city which, while once infamous for its lawlessness, enjoyed its lowest homicide rate for 70 years in 2018, during which 289 people were killed. Mayor Bill de Blasio proudly declared last year that this was "the new normal," though he will no doubt be eyeing 2019's bloody start with concern.

New York City's falling murder rate, which peaked at 2,245 murders at the turn of the 1990s, is a source of great pride for the city. Politicians and law enforcement officials introduced a wide range of measures to address the violence, and continued to do so while it was falling.

One of the most controversial was "stop-and-frisk." This allowed police to stop people in the streets and search them on the spot, looking for drugs, weapons or other indications of criminal activity or intent. The New York Police Department took to the policy with enthusiasm, and from 2002 stop-and-frisk activity went through the roof.

Controversial, biased, and not necessarily effective

In 2002, less than 100,000 New Yorkers were searched in this way. The number peaked in 2011, with some 688,000 detained for stop-and-frisk checks, according to the NYPD. Despite how popular they were with officers, citizens did not feel the same.

The force was accused of excessive use of stop-and-frisk powers, not least because the vast majority of those targeted were young black and Latino men. Moreover, the vast majority of those stopped were innocent.

In 2012, thousands of citizens marched silently down Fifth Avenue to call for an end to racially-charged stop-and-frisk searches. Though then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the crowd that stop-and-frisk saves lives, protesters were re-energized that July when activists were targeted by police for their opposition to the policy, and once again in October, when audio emerged of NYPD officers cursing at and racially abusing a teenager while conducting a stop-and-frisk search.

The following year, the U.S. District Court ruled that officers had used stop-and-frisk searches unconstitutionally and ordered an overhaul of their application. This set off a series of appeals, but nonetheless, stop-and-frisk use declined dramatically.

In the first half of 2018,around 12,000 were conducted. Though the number of stop-and-frisks is way down, the measures still target ethnic minorities, the New York Civil Liberties Union has said.

But Johnson sees that as a price worth paying, and, when discussing knife crime in London, attacks the same arguments used against stop-and-frisk in New York.

In February 2018 the number of murders in London surpassed that of New York. Though the London toll was only higher for that one month, the statistics made headlines worldwide and illustrated the capital's struggle with violent crime.

Writing for The Daily Mail, Johnson suggested the knife crime problem stemmed from offenders being unafraid to carry weapons. He recalled his term as London mayor, when he oversaw "a massive program of stop and search" to battle knife crime. Johnson claimed that some critics "suggested that stop and search was discriminatory and heavy-handed. We ignored these voices. It worked."

"Until we tackle the [publicly-correct] squeamishness over stop and search, bone-headed thugs will carry knives with no fear of the law," Johnson's inflammatory headline thundered.

Police searches are not the only factor

Graham Wettone, a police officer-turned media analyst with 30 years policing service, told Newsweek that stop-and-search can be a valuable tool.

"It isn't applied randomly," explained Wettone, who is also the author of the book How to be a Police Officer. "If it was you would have many more women stopped, elderly people stopped and children stopped. Those complaining about it are either looking to gain votes or popularity or increasing their own social standing."

He suggested that many of the reasons for criticism in the U.K. date from decades ago, "when stop-and-search was not conducted with as much proportionality and necessity as it is now."

"It is no coincidence that the demanded reduction in doing stop-and-search…preceded a noticeable increase in the rise in knife crime," Wettone added. However, he stressed that such powers are "just one part" of the fight against knife crime.

Stop-and-search is not the only factor. British police budgets were slashed under the Conservative government's austerity program. That said, not all police-force areas have seen knife crime increase by the same proportion as budget cuts. According to analysis by The Economist, there is no clear correlation. Police leaders have said there is still a clear link, though the exact nature of it remains unclear. While cuts are undoubtedly part of the problem, reversing them is not the only answer.

Other possible responses touted include restricting knife purchases and increasing the minimum mandated jail sentence for carrying a knife in public. "There needs to be an effective deterrent, or else whatever powers or tactics the police use or are given are made redundant if not imposed," Wettone warned.

But longer mandatory sentences are already being applied, the BBC explained. The average prison term for carrying a knife has gone up from around five months to more than eight months over the past 10 years, and 82 percent of convicts now serve at least three months compared with only 51 percent before. Such sentences have not had the desired effect—at least so far.

The violence is part of a broader picture of poverty in Britain, where wealth inequality has been rising since 2008. For young people in the most deprived areas of the U.K., education is lacking, job opportunities are scarce, drugs are commonplace and community services increasingly absent.

Growing urban drug networks are also spreading the violence to rural areas. Known as "county lines" operations, drug dealers—often young children—are sent from large cities to establish trades in smaller towns where the industry is less organized. Such moves spark turf wars and inevitably end in violence.

"The whole debate is about police powers, numbers and enforcement. It should also focus on Intervention and diversion," Wettone suggested. "Provide young people with a future or at least positive prospects," encourage parental responsibility, promote positive role models and secure "funding for youth services and activities," he added.

Stop-and-frisk—with its infringement on personal freedoms and alleged racial profiling—with always divide opinion. But when violent crime goes up, law enforcement and politicians look for quick and visible solutions.

The conversation may well come back to the fore in New York if the city's homicide rate continues at the same pace for all of 2019. But one look across the Atlantic shows that politics—as much as crime-fighting strategy—will dictate what happens next.