Trust between Black Britons and the police is at a low ebb. At the same time, the number of Black homicide victims has risen to its highest for nearly two decades. But while this might seem like an intractable problem, we’ve actually dealt with it before - and can do so again.
Over twenty years ago, a community-led initiative - Operation Trident - was established with the Metropolitan police to tackle gun crime and homicide disproportionately affecting black communities, following a spate of shootings in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Brent. The central idea was that encouraging witnesses and members of the community to come forward required a different way of working, with dedicated police time and specialist resources. The initiative was widely hailed as a success, not only in driving down gun murders within London, but in terms of its impact on community confidence, which in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence murder, had been perceived to be at an all time low.
In spite of, or perhaps partly as a result of that success, Trident was quietly disbanded in 2012 by the Metropolitan Police, and relaunched as a broader ‘gang command unit’, moving away from a specific focus on black gun-related crime, to tackling all violent crime relating to young people.
Why is this relevant today? Well, two reports published on Thursday 25 Feb suggested that the lessons of Operation Trident may need to be re-learnt sooner than we think.
The first was a report by the Henry Jackson Society, which included a poll of Black Britons. In one of the questions, respondents were asked to rank the racial fairness of a number of public institutions and systems (Parliament, local councils, police, the NHS, and the education system.) The poll found that nearly 6 in 10 Black British people – 57.4 per cent – were of the view that their local police force “treats Black people unfairly”. To many, this will come as no surprise. Indeed the wave of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests last Summer, initially triggered by the murder of African American George Floyd, were largely premised on the sense that young Black ben experience a harsher form of policing than White Britons.
Whether or not such perceptions of unfairness are justified, the implications of this kind of confidence gap are clearly dire: if people don’t think they will be treated fairly, they are less likely to report crime and cooperate with investigations, which will in turn make it harder to solve crimes.
The second was a review of homicides published on Thursday by the Office for National Statistics, which revealed a concerning trend: serious violence is increasingly affecting young black adults. In the year ending March 2020, there were 105 Black homicide victims, accounting for 15 per cent of all victims. According to the ONS, this is the highest number of Black victims since the year ending 2002 - when Operation Trident was at its height.
The number of Black homicide victims has grown steadily since 2015 - indeed once you control for population, Black people are much more likely to be victims of homicide than other ethnic groups living in Britain. In the three years leading to March 2020, average rates per million population were around five times higher for Black victims than White victims and almost four times higher than victims of other ethnicities.
What might explain this worrying trend? Partly it reflects broader changes in the pattern and structure of violence itself. Since around 2014 there has been a growth in low-volume, high-harm offences, such as knife crime, which tend to disproportionately involve young adults living in urban areas. In particular, offences involving knives have risen steadily over the last six years and are now at their highest level since 2011 (the earliest point for which data is available).
The ONS homicide data confirms that the most common method of killing in the year to March 2020 was “by a sharp instrument, including knives” (40 per cent). Just over a quarter of knife homicide victims were identified as Black: the highest annual total since 1997 (when ethnicity started to be recorded on a consistent basis on the Homicide Index). Moreover, of the total number of Black homicide victims, around half (49 per cent) were in the 16-24 years age group, whereas this was a much lower proportion for Asian (25 per cent) and White victims (12 per cent).
Of course, murders do not happen in a vacuum. They are the culmination of a complicated set of individual, family and community risk factors, a combination of missed opportunities, structural disadvantage and bad individual choices. A forthcoming TBI paper will examine these issues in greater detail, including the need for policymakers to look beyond policing, at the role played by children’s social services, schools, housing and health services in tackling the vulnerability that underpins crime.
In the meantime, the current Prime Minister might want to reflect on whether the decision he oversaw, while he was London Mayor, to disband Operation Trident, ought to be revisited. With a collapse in community confidence and a record rise in Black homicide victims, there is an urgent need to rebuild trust between Black communities and the police.
 Figure 5, ‘The nature of violent crime in England and Wales: year ending March 2020’, ONS, 25 Feb, 2021, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/thenatureofviolentcrimeinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2020#groups-of-people-most-likely-to-be-victims-of-violent-crime
 Figure 5, ‘Homicide in England and Wales: year ending March 2020’, ONS, Feb 25, 2021, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/homicideinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2020