In the run-up to Election Day, the third roundtable held by LSE London brought together experts on policing and crime to discuss how perceptions of these issues relate to realities and what the next Mayor could usefully do to address them.
In the run-up to the election, polling evidence had shown that half of potential voters believed the capital had become increasingly unsafe, and saw policing and crime as likely to determine how they would vote. For many it seems, Sadiq Khan’s tenure has been marked by a ‘soft spot’ on crime, coinciding with an apparent increase in knife crime in the capital and a loss of confidence in the police forces – though hard evidence does not really back this up.
So, the newly elected mayor will clearly be expected to deliver on security issues, even if it is not clear how. The roundtable thus focused particularly on the gap between campaign rhetoric and potential Mayoral policies.
After brief introductions by each of the speakers, three main topics were discussed: the political challenges of addressing media/campaign stories about a rampant crime in London; the importance of rebuilding trust between the Met and Londoners; and finally the challenge of ensuring greater representation and inclusivity in the ranks of the Met.
What role for the Mayor in policing London?
As highlighted by two of the speakers, both the current Mayor and rival candidates had drawn a simple link between reported crime levels in London and Mayoral performance. But the Mayor alone does not hold the responsibility for crime rates because they reflect broader socio-economic dynamics not just policing. And, even in relation to policing, responsibilities are divided so the Mayor’s accountability is limited. The Home Secretary (Government) on the one hand appoints the Metropolitan Police Commissioner who is responsible for operational policing. On the other, the Mayor sets the budget for the Metropolitan Police and draws up a Police and Crime Plan. Yet, the Mayor can, through this plan and other means, set the tone of the conversation on crime and expectations about what the Met will and will not do.
There have been constructive initiatives toward a broad ‘public health’ approach to identifying significant causal influences around violence which offers the Mayor some opportunities to act. But it was also argued that policing is not just about high profile crime and violence reduction, but there was a need for a broader perspective including renewed emphasis on neighbourhood/community policing. The Mayor, given his competencies, has the capacity to do so. He can foster interactions between the police and other institutions such as boroughs, schools and the NHS which have important roles to play in improving safety and policing in London.
What challenges lie ahead for the Mayor?
Beyond the role of the Mayor in policing, the discussion focussed on the future challenges for policing in London and what will happen after the elections. Three central issues were raised by the speakers:
- Dealing with crime reporting post-lockdown
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, high profile media has given the impression both that London has increasingly become an insecure and violent place, and that Mayor Khan bears some responsibility for this. But this rise in crime numbers had already started under Boris Johnson’s mandate and reflects a UK-wide trend, within which London was not exceptional. This context is inherently hardly covered in the media. The Mayor with his London partners will need to find a new way to talk about crime, highlighting aspects where real differences could be made, and potentially successful action taken.
This will be particularly important in a post-pandemic context where crime rates can be expected to bounce-back everywhere from their greatly constrained lock-down levels – with new stories about ‘London crime waves’ for which the Mayor is to blame. Finding a balance between spreading alarm and downplaying the significance of crime will be important, but most important is to understand the key underlying factors that can credibly be addressed.
- Building back trust between the Met and Londoners
As was highlighted during the discussion, trust in the police is essential, yet hard to build effectively. Recent run-ins between the Met and protesters in relation to Black Lives Matter and the Sarah Everard murder case have worsened the relationship between Londoners and the Met which is anyway often tense. A key challenge for the Mayor is to understand these long term sources of distrust.
During their respective campaigns, Khan’s opponents stressed specific policing shortcomings. Green Party candidate Sian Berry, for instance, highlighted how the MET’s Gangs Matrix database was not being properly kept up to date, and how the Mayor should exert pressure through the MOPAC to ensure greater efficiency. Other concerns were raised, such as the long delays in the handling of rape and other sexual offences, leading many to avoid reporting assaults. More generally one of the participants suggested that the Met had been a catastrophe for the last 50 years!
Creating more positive street interactions between the police and local communities appeared crucial. One speaker emphasised that building relationships with communities and working on prevention instead of just reacting to crisis, could have a lasting impact on the effectiveness and accountability of policing. However, as pointed out by others, half of metropolitan police officers do not live in London.
The many dangers associated with increased use of technology in policing – such as drones, cameras for facial recognition, etc. – were also mentioned. Critics argued that these technologies “further drive a wedge between police officers and the community they are supposed to serve”,
- Increasing representation and diversity in the police
If this lack of trust in the police is a key issue to overcome, it is definitely linked to a blatant lack of inclusivity and representativeness in its ranks. As one panellist stressed, ‘although confidence in the police is generally high in this country, for black Britons it is much lower. And that’s been the case for a very long time’. The increased use of stop-and-search during lockdowns has led to renewed complaints that young black Londoners are being over-watched and under-protected. How could this be better addressed?
One answer is about increasing diversity within the Met, by recruiting and retaining more officers from ethnic minorities, in line with the inclusivity target already set by the MOPAC Race Action Plan. This would involve more investment in police training. But, as highlighted by one panellist, a fundamental is to change the long-term negative perception of policing within black communities so that people will be willing to join the police. Another key concern was that officers coming from London’s minorities are treated differently within the ranks of the Met. Enhanced training for all officers on tackling racism and discrimination is necessary but in addition the quality of leadership, from the senior officer level down to that of inspectors and sergeants must be improved. The Mayor must set clear and strong expectations of standards and behaviour across the whole system.
The beginning of a second Mayoral term provides an opportunity to get beyond the point-scoring political exchanges about crime rate changes. The Mayor need to address policing and security in a much broader way, and initiate co-operation with the boroughs, the NHS and schools to bring an effective and long-lasting change in the way policing is addressed in London.
 Dave Hill, ‘London Mayor Election 2021: What’s really been happening with policing and crime?’, On London, 29th March 2021; https://www.onlondon.co.uk/london-mayor-election-2021-whats-really-been-happening-with-policing-and-crime/
 Reference to Tim Newburn’s blog for this event
 Rick Muir (2021) ‘Policing, crime and public safety’, ch. 7 in J Brown, T. Travers and R. Brown (eds.) London’s Mayor at 20, governing a global city in the 21st century, Biteback Publishing.