If you have wondered what it takes to get arrested these days then let me tell you about the fate of Kate Scottow, 38, a mother of two from Hitchin in Hertfordshire. On December 1 last year three police officers – three – came to her home and arrested her in front of her kids, one of whom is still a baby. They took her to the local nick and if reports are to be believed – and the Hertfordshire police have certainly not contradicted them – they detained her for seven hours in the cells. They confiscated her laptop and her mobile phone, neither of which has been returned. And what was her crime? She is said to have insulted a transgender woman. She called her a man. Over the internet. On Twitter.
Now I hold no particular brief for Kate Scottow. It appears that, like many other people on Twitter, she is unbridled in her tongue. It would seem, furthermore, that her attitude towards transgender people is antediluvian and offensive – but if, and only if, you can be bothered to read her tweets, and if and only if you can be bothered to take offence.
When they read the story of Kate Scottow, I believe most people would indeed be outraged, but not primarily at the content of her tweets. Of course we care for anyone whose feelings are bruised, but we aren’t focussing on that. We are thinking about the three police officers, the custody suite that was occupied for seven hours, the witness statements, the court proceedings – the considerable expenditure of public money on what would seem to be a silly (if nasty) Twitter spat; and we think about that peculiar abuse of manpower and police facilities when we learn that in the last couple of days the NHS has reported a 54 per cent increase in stabbings, and when there seems to be a new and tragic incident of knife crime reported virtually every day.
Is this really the right way to fight crime? Is this what our brave police officers signed up to do? Are you really telling me that it is a sensible ordering of priorities to round up Twitter-borne transphobes and chuck them in the clink, when violence on the streets would seem to be getting out of control?
I remember the last time we had a knife crime epidemic in this country – ten years ago or more; and I remember how the police beat the problem – at least in London. Then as now, the news was appalling, and day after day we would agonise in City Hall about what was going wrong, and what levers we could possibly use.Together with my then deputy mayor Kit Malthouse – he of the excellent memorandum – we heard experts offer every diagnosis that you could imagine.
Some people said that it was all about deprivation and the closure of youth centres, and the often-heard complaint that “kids don’t have anything else to do”. Some said it was all about family breakdown and the absence of male role models, and a consequent lack of self esteem. The gangs provided a kind of pseudo-family, a sense of security and hierarchy that these young people – mainly but not entirely male – otherwise lacked. There was a lot of evidence that the violence of the gangs was to do with drugs, and postcode based fights over territory. Some went so far as to suggest that kids could somehow be excused for carrying a knife, on the grounds that the streets were so dangerous that they really had no choice but to defend themselves.
And based on these diagnoses all sorts of worthy solutions were proposed, in the form of “diversions” from crime. We sponsored youth programmes and outreach groups; we paid for ping-pong parlours and music rooms. We set up mentoring programmes and volunteering campaigns and we had a special unit in Feltham designed to help turn around young offenders and stop them returning to crime.
I am sure that all these interventions did at least some good, but as we wrestled with the crisis I remember coming suddenly to a cynical conclusion about knife crime, and what it was that really motivated a kid to carry a knife. It wasn’t fear; it wasn’t necessity. I am afraid that after talking to endless gang leaders and members I came to the conclusion that the strongest driver in the knife epidemic was really a perverted sense of fashion.
I decided that carrying a knife in defiance of the authorities was partly seen as a sign of status, of cool. It was intended to convey a sense of menace and machismo, and it seemed to us that young people who were carrying a bladed weapon were making a cynical calculation that they would get away with it – because the police would never catch them.
We had to change that calculation, to change the balance of risk, at least in their imagination. That was why the Metropolitan Police launched a vast and systematic programme of stop and search, called Operation Blunt Two; and though it was certainly controversial at the time, and though there was some Left-wing protest, the results were very striking. The police took 11,000 knives off the streets. It became clear to those who were used to carrying a knife – or who might be tempted to carry one – that the balance of risk had palpably changed. After a couple of years of effort there had been a transformation – and for several years running there were fewer than 100 murders a year in London.
I am not for a minute suggesting that stop and search was solely responsible for this policing success – but it was certainly a factor. It worked partly because the police were given the explicit assurance that provided they were polite, they would have every possible political support and encouragement to do their frisking.
And it worked because we put the police on the streets where they could do the job they want to do; and it should be obvious that you can’t police properly if officers are endlessly filling custody suites with 38 year old mums whose crime is to have caused needless offence on Twitter. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this internet feud, we are wasting too much time and resource on cases like this.