Behind the scenes with Operation Sceptre as police tackle knife crime in Barking and Dagenham
PUBLISHED: 07:00 25 January 2018
A top Scotland Yard detective has said use of stop and search in Barking and Dagenham and across London is a vital tactic to reduce youth stabbings, but warned: "We cannot arrest and enforce our way out of this situation."
Acting Det Ch Supt Sean Yates, who heads up the Met’s specialist taskforce on knife crime, called for people to set aside preconceptions and work with the force to help prevent youth violence.
Youth knife crime in London has soared and a Post investigation has shown knife attacks on under-25s in Barking and Dagenham have increased by 178 per cent in five years, one of the steepest rises in the capital.
The Post asked what Operation Sceptre is doing to prevent youth stabbings and was told stop and search is a vital tactic to generate information for police, as well as taking weapons off the streets.
But Det Ch Supt Sean Yates emphasised the controversial tactic must be intelligence-led and delivered “ethically and with integrity”.
“We deploy to areas where knife crime is rife and the messaging that we’re getting out to our officers is that if you’re in the right place, at the right time, it’s not just about going in there and stopping and searching everybody that happens to come across you,” he said.
“It’s about getting out of the police carrier and speaking to these youngsters and telling them why we’re here.
“It’s murder suppression, that’s the message we’re putting out, stopping knives being on the street, and then hopefully you’ll get a conversation back.”
The Met set up Operation Sceptre in April last year and it focuses solely on crimes in which knives are used to injure under 25-year-olds.
Police statistics show only a quarter of these offences are gang related.
One hundred officers have been deployed on the specialist taskforce and, as of last October, it had taken 2,472 knives off the streets and made 4,216 arrests.
Working closely with borough police forces, Sceptre’s tactics include use of stop and search, carrying out weapons sweeps and knife arch operations.
Police also target habitual knife carriers and carry out uniformed patrols in knife hotspots, which alter depending on peaks in crime.
Community weapons sweeps, in which members of the public suggest locations for knife searches and actually join officers to look for weapons in places such as parks, bins or hedges, are also top of the police’s priority list.
But Det Ch Supt Yates says enforcement alone will not reduce knife offending and preventative work is an important part of police tactics.
He said the force faces significant challenges engaging young people who feel pressure to carry a knife for protection.
“The trend is obviously, worryingly, young people are still picking up knives,” he said. “I think there are a lot of social factors, economic factors involved, broken homes being part of it, and young people in public spaces feeling the need to carry a knife because they either feel that they should for self defence, or, they actually want to carry a knife to intimidate or they want to deal drugs.”
He says police intelligence from habitual knife carriers, who are people that have been named twice as a suspect on a police crime report in the last year, has shown social media may also be amplifying some knife disputes.
“Ten years ago if you were disrespected, or you were a victim of something on your patch as a young man - two, three, four, five, six people got to know about it,” said Det Ch Supt Yates.
“It never went viral. What we’re seeing now is social media goes completely viral very quickly and then suddenly hundreds and hundreds of people know you’ve been disrespected, and that feeds-in in terms of ‘Now I’ve got to illicit a response or I’ll lose respect’. That’s what they tell us.”
Asked whether sentences handed down by the courts for knife crime are too lenient, he said the Home Office is working with the Ministry of Justice to query jail terms perceived as disproportionate.
He also called for retailers to act responsibly and keep knives in locked cabinets. And police are working with government on tougher laws on the sale of Rambo, combat and hunting knives.
“I would like to see them banned in public,” said Det Ch Supt Yates. “That’s my personal view.”
The police chief says Operation Sceptre has already had a positive impact in taking knives off the streets, but he appealed for the public’s help to spread awareness and discourage youngsters from picking up weapons.
“We can’t arrest and enforce our way out of this situation,” he said. “As a parent, as a sibling, as a peer, get the message out there, ‘Please don’t carry a knife’.
“You might see it as a matter of respect, you might think you need to defend yourself, but the statistics show that you’re actually making the issue worse and young people are being murdered as a result of these actions.
“So the message to the community is, please talk to us.”
‘Summer spike in youth stabbings may be due to schools being shut’
Police work in schools may be helping to reduce knife crime during term time – but that picture is reversed in the holidays.
Figures for 2017 show a spike in youth knife attacks in Barking and Dagenham during the summer months.
Det Sgt Emma Bowles, who works in the East Area Gangs Unit, says she believes police preventative work in schools may have impacted on the figures.
“We do weapons sweeps in schools and occasional knife arches at some of the colleges,” she said.
“So it is more difficult for kids to take a knife into school or college and that would be my personal view as to why, in the summer holiday, figures are higher.”
Work carried out by local police to tackle knife crime includes weapons sweeps, knife arch operations, and stop and search checks - which Det Supt Jane Scotchbrook, head of neighbourhood policing for East Area, described as a “huge deterrent on carrying out crime”.
Det Supt Scotchbrook said total levels of under-25 knife crime in Barking and Dagenham are relatively low compared to other areas of the capital, such as Croydon, Lambeth, Southwark, Newham and Tower Hamlets.
“We are below average,” she said. “That doesn’t mean of course that when there is a knife crime or a stabbing that it isn’t a serious matter. It is never a minor offence. One knife crime is too many.
“Obviously we would love to eradicate it and we will do our best to do that. But we would ask the community’s help to provide us with the information to help us tackle this sort of crime.”
If you have information about anyone carrying knives, call local police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.
NEXT WEEK: In the final of our special reports on knife crime, a youth worker who survived being stabbed, and escaped from a gang lifestyle, talks about his work to prevent teenagers turning to crime