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Commander Simon Letchford: Call out to South Norwood

Blog post   •   May 07, 2015 15:06 BST

It was not an unusual call out of the 4.5 million the Met Police receive every year, but what it gave us was a fascinating snapshot of the difficult decisions officers make every day. It shows how a routine incident can be seen in different ways, is quickly viewed by more than one million people via social media and featured in the national news.

The Call: A member of the public calls police to report what they believe to be drugs being sold to young people on their high street in South Norwood. The call stated ‘paper pouches’ were being handed to youths by two men. When our local officers speak to their communities, drug dealing always comes up as an issue that is a blight on their area and they want the police to do something about. Parents and grandparents tell us they do not want drugs sold to young people on our streets - I think anyone would expect a response and so officers attended the scene.

The Response: Two local officers attend. These are unarmed officers dedicated to policing those local streets. The decision is now one for them. They see the two men matching the description from the report that came in. They conduct a stop and search. Quite rightly the Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, has placed a real focus on our stop and search tactics. Many, especially in minority communities, felt it was a power the police were overusing. After research, better training and a full scale review we have seen the number of stop and search in London plummet by 66 per cent since we launched a new approach to using this power in January 2012. However it is still an important part of our policing response. Quick decisions need to be made on when it was used.

The Reaction: A crowd quickly builds up and there is a fair amount of abuse directed at the officers. Other units are called because of the situation, again a difficult decision. What would that initial caller think if police can be intimidated from investigating the information they were giving us? Is this creating a situation which could ultimately lead to danger for both the officers and the public? Should relations with those members of the community, unhappy the officers have decided on a search, be of greater importance than investigating a possible crime? The man was handcuffed and moved away so the search could be conducted away from the crowd but he was not arrested and he was not taken to a police station. No drugs were found and he was released. The crowd dispersed and the officers left the area.

The Conclusion: Before smart phones and social media, that would have been the end of the incident. It is likely that the man who was searched might have felt it was unnecessary, although an important part of the training is for officers to explain exactly why there is a need for the stop and search. Those who were angry in the crowd might have their view reinforced that minorities are unfairly targeted by the tactic. The officers might well have felt they had no choice but to do what they did. What is interesting is that because the incident was filmed and uploaded to social media (https://www.facebook.com/adrian.medford.1/videos/10206620482013989/) more than one million people have seen the incident unfold, but crucially without the background knowledge that it all started with a credible call from a concerned member of the public that they thought drugs were being sold to young people in their community.

Having watched the film, I have no reason to be concerned about how the officers acted. The situation became difficult but they did what they needed to do in a fair and proportionate manner, considering the information they had. The BBC have today highlighted in a web report (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-32612604) that this incident provides a snapshot of our difficult relationship with London's communities and draws parallels with the recent problems between American police and black communities. Personally I thought the way the BBC presented this was a bit on the strong side. I don't think it is right to say it "echoed" Baltimore - something a BBC tweet claimed. Of course tensions between the police and public are a concern and there is more to be done, but I am also proud of the progress we have made. Hopefully blog posts like this go someway to explaining why we need to police the city the way we do. Hopefully our focus on fewer, but more targeted, stop and search show we have listened. Hopefully the way our officers explain their stop and search and conduct it helps to maintain confidence in what we are doing.

There is no easy answer when it comes to difficult policing decisions. However, I welcome scrutiny and when we get it wrong - and I don't think we did here - then we will be judged on how we respond. We are highly accountable - not just through the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Mayor's Office for Crime and Policing - but directly to the public of London we serve. I just hope that what is viewed by the public on social media is done so with context and as many facts as possible. We should take opportunities like this to explain what we do and why we do it and hopefully that will help build trust and confidence and help us to make London a safe and happy place to live.