Monday, 12 January 2009

Knives on the streets

I hear there's to be a `knife expose shock horror programme` on the BBC tonight, probably Pan `O Rama. Apparantly, some knife carrying types are saying that if they knew they'd be sent to jail for a decent stretch they wouldn't have carried a blade. Bloody hell, is that so? Can it be that simple? Is this a new phenomenon? When I was released onto the streets of South East London and then later posted `up town` as a young copper, knives were always at the forefront of our mind and were frequently revealed as we exercised our powers of stop and search, using reasonable suspicion and discretion. My first experience of watching a colleague `grooming a street informer` was as a cadet in the final phase of my training. I had already been slashed at by a man weilding a knife, an early lesson and one that focussed my young mind on survival. My observations of a typical copper of that era, and area, went something like this. (Disclaimer: In the unlikely event any recently recruited 21st century probationers read this next bit, they should brace themselves, for it contains material that shows `corrupting and highly immoral` conduct or what one campaigner once dubbed, "low-level, high morals corruption", that should be reported to a senior officer immediately). South East London, Surrey Docks area: One of our regulars, a suspected person and reputed dealer, was stopped and searched. In his jacket pocket was a large flick knife - an offensive weapon in it's own right. The street search also revealed a tiny piece of cannabis resin. My hard faced colleague, an old soldier and veteran of the Korean War, quietly handed the knife to me and then to my amazement, made a most compelling proposition to the clearly very nervous suspect (At that time, possession of a flick knife would often attract a short custodial sentence). The following is a precis of the conversation that followed: `Now you're looking at a possible 28 days for the knife and I think the little bit of cannabis might just add something extra. But I think we might be able to help each other so here's the deal. I confiscate the knife and let you off, here and now, on probation. Your part of the deal is to tell me all the faces round here who carry weapons and drugs. You do that and eventually you'll have served your probation, the knife goes away for good and you don't go to prison. If you don't play your part, then you have two choices, you'll be my number one target and stopped and searched again and your probation for this offence will be revoked. Your other choice is never show your face on these streets until I've retired`. This officer achieved impressive results in both drug and knife arrests. I have no idea if his intention really was to plant the knife back on the bloke and `re-instate the offence` in some future stop and search, but he certainly put some fear into the suspect that he might. He also received a lot of good information over the coming weeks and in so doing took a lot of blades off the streets. Custodial sentences, albet short terms, for such offences was certainly high on the agenda of the presiding magistrates. The fear of being caught and the fear of the punishment was pretty much the driver in this policeman's strategy and the bad people he mixed it with gave him and those like him a considerable degree of respect the - `you'd better watch out if you mess up with this guy` type of respect. Witnessing this episode left me with something of a quandary. No way did I want to become a corrupt practitioner of the law at my level in the game, but I did realise that the level of fear and apprehension placed in the mind of this particular knife carrier was tangible and a very powerful tool. It taught me that it was ok if bad people were scared of me and my colleagues and that the effectiveness of my job was as much about using subtlties as it was the application of force and the law. Sadly, today, it seems that its just the good people who are scared of the police and not for what the police are capable of doing, but for what they seem incapable of doing. Incidentally, as someone who was firearms trained ultimately to `hostage rescue` level, I was taught that someone threatening me or a member of the public with a big knife, like the one in the picture, was a legitimate target for a live round aimed at the centre of the chest. Even with the current (no pun intended) introduction of Tasers across the UK, this does not make the threat, or the police's response to it, any less lethal. If anything it just muddies the waters a little. But that's for another story.

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