Welcome to Croydon: the Stop and Search capital of South London

On day 2 of our investigation into Business Improvement Districts we examine policing in the Town Centre

In the span of a single day in early February, Croydon registered 10 separate knife attacks resulting in multiple injuries and one death. The police response was as swift as it was predictable. Section 60 powers took effect across Croydon allowing local Metropolitan (MET) officers in coordination with other more specialized police teams to employ controversial stop and search tactics en mass. By the end of February, the borough had nearly eclipsed Westminster as the stop and search capital of London, mostly owing to the month-long police maneuver known as Operation Cleveland. When all was said and done, the operation resulted in over 500 searches confined to a vanishingly small patch of West Croydon and the town centre. Just 8% of those searches uncovered a weapon — 43 in total. The rest of what was held up as evidence of the operation’s success consisted of small bags of cannabis

The short-term answer to the long-term problems of serious youth violence in Croydon, has and continues to be seen through the prism of aggressive policing around the town centre. From July to September of the previous year, that same stretch of London Road roughly coextensive with the Croydon Business Improvement District and at the heart of last month’s operation, quietly became the most heavily policed square-kilometer south of the Thames. Like a microcosm of the borough’s overriding political dynamics, the liminal zone between Broad Green and Fairfield sits at the nexus of poverty, shrinking council services, and multi-billion-pound regeneration plans.

The problems facing Croydon’s immense youth population are stark. An estimated 40% of children in Broad Green grow up in poverty and council youth services have been cut by 75% in three years — though substantial emergency relief from the Mayor’s office is forthcoming. Nonetheless, data produced from a Freedom of Information request revealed that when stop and searches did find a knife in Croydon, they were overwhelmingly carried by teens. From 2015 to 2019, 25% of those found in possession were 10 to 15 years old, with 29% between 16 to 19. But in general, most searches turned up nothing. And most, over two-thirds in Croydon, apprehended minorities. Research by UCL professor Matt Ashby showed that poor communities like Broad Green see a disproportionate quantity of searches across London.

Data from the Metropolitan Police Service: Graph. Samuel Shaw

Shock-and-awe campaigns like Operation Cleveland are only a staccato note to an ambient rhythm of routine police encounters throughout the town centre. Fairfield ward, home to the second-largest mall in London as well as numerous large-scale development projects has been at the forefront of prosecuting small infractions, reporting 120 “anti-social behavior” incidents per 1,000 residents — roughly four times the national average. There, the local business improvement district (BID) has poured over three-million pounds into various “safe & secure” measures since its inception in 2007. One of the measures includes “BID funded police” who conduct their own stop and searches with 44 searches reported in September of 2019. 

“When the purpose of a social space is primarily for profit-making, then it’s going to be important for that space to be ‘sanitized’.” Simon Flacks

After shopping and regeneration, policing seems to be the central feature of the Croydon town centre experience. The completion of Operation Cleveland will see an additional 30 officers permanently added to the high street starting this month. 

“The feeling of safety and security in the town centre is paramount,” said Croydon BID CEO Matthew Sims. In a call with ELL, he highlighted the scope of business coordination with the MET. “We work absolutely with the MET police. We have police officers who are on overtime shifts, and they provide increased visibility throughout the town center. They improve business engagement between the police, the BID company, and our members so that we can improve communication and intelligence,” Sims said. “They focus on key areas and key issues that are affecting businesses at that time. That could be a range of anti-social behaviors; all sorts of different things.” 

BID-funded officers along with a host of street “ambassadors” hired by the district, carry a radio system that allows rapid “intelligence” sharing. Croydon’s BID website mentions the word “intelligence” in relation to policing over 40 times. Member companies within the district also have access to an online police-intelligence portal. Businesses are not spearheading these policies on their own, however. They’ve been deputised by the Mayor’s Office of Policing and Crime (MOPAC) and singled out as a key partner in reducing knife crime through security partnerships with the MET and transport police. Their primary role, besides supplementing security budgets through levies, appears to be as the eyes and ears of law enforcement. 

Officers conducting searches in West Croydon: Pic. Samuel Shaw

In its 2014 Business Crime Strategy report, MOPAC “dared business to share intelligence and crime reports more openly with law enforcement so crime gangs and serial perpetrators can be traced.” To do this, MOPAC would begin “working in unprecedented partnership with business,” to make the city a safe place to “invest.” London BIDs Against Crime’s 2019 Safe and Secure Report outlined the steps districts were taking to follow through with the MOPAC directive. Along with CCTV, radio links, and additional officers, BIDs would see to “the implementation of search policies.” 

Simon Flacks, a criminologist at the University of Westminster and author of a recent paper on the effects of stop and search told ELL, “when the purpose of a social space is primarily for profit-making, then it’s going to be important for that space to be ‘sanitized’ and part of that process will involve removing ‘undesirables’ from public spaces. And that’s often how racist policing manifests, with those kinds of overarching strategies.” 

By linking the twin imperatives of spatial control to profit-making, Flacks echoed findings from Northumbria University professor Ian Cook more than a decade ago on the nascent fusion of business and law enforcement in the UK. As Cook noted then, such “partnerships have increasingly utilized policing services to reassure their target groups and encourage spending and investment.” This “intertwining of policing and urban regeneration strategies,” as Cook described it, might explain the emphasis on criminal justice solutions to youth alienation in Croydon’s town centre. 

‘Nothing has changed’

According to Flacks, persistent searches in an area lead to a diminished sense of self-worth, especially among minorities, but perhaps more important, they also lead to resentment towards the police. Heightened resentment counteracts the supposed intelligence benefits of search policies by alienating communities vital to identifying the worst criminals. And if ignored completely, resentment can metastasize into riots. A Sussex University research paper on the 2011 London riots found that Croydon’s participants were highly motivated by anti-police sentiment. 

Flacks is concerned that the preconditions for another riot persist: “The racial nature of policing hasn’t changed. Certainly, the racial politics in this country have not improved. And as far as I know, after 10 years of austerity, inequality is even worse than it was in 2011.” 

Posters from the 2011 London Riot: Pic. Samuel Shaw

To get a better understanding about the effects stop and search policies are having on communities in the borough, ELL spoke to Marzia Nicodemi who chairs the Croydon Stop and Search Community Monitoring Group. Community monitoring groups (CMG) like the one Nicodemi runs out of Purley were set up by the MET following revelations of racist police misconduct in the now infamous 1999 MacPherson Report. Because of her position at the CMG, Nicodemi has privileged access to police body camera footage unavailable to the general public. 

The community center was freezing. Nicodemi wears long johns at work to stay warm; a lack of funding to services like the CMG means the heating shuts off at 1pm each day. On the whiteboard in the room were scrawlings from an English lesson she taught earlier that day. Posters made following the 2011 riots were affixed to a large table in the middle. 

“I’m not anti-police and never will be anti-police. But I am for equality,” she said. “I’m angry. Do we need an Operation Cleveland? Because of the stop and searches, people are calling me from all over Croydon. They send me videos and my blood boils.” 

Nicodemi added that the “officers do not really follow the procedures they are told to follow. If they see you, you’re black, then you’re immediately a danger. And then they handcuff you.” She recalled body camera footage from a stop in December when a black man was immediately cuffed though he didn’t appear to resist or threaten officers. 

“Aggressive policing is wrong. The moment you’re aggressive you’ve lost everything… It only displaces crime.” 

It wouldn’t be the first time the Metropolitan Police in Croydon have been accused of systematic misconduct. As ELL reported in 2017, the borough’s department had received nearly 500 complaints in one year, many related to allegations of racial profiling.

Part of the urgency around Operation Cleveland, Nicodemi thinks, was that one of “the stabbings happened in the wrong place… Fairfield is the creme de la creme.” Around the town centre, abject poverty exists cheek-by-jowl with “million-pound homes,” she said.   

Most of all, Nicodemi worried about a repeat of the 2011 riots that caused so much devastation to Croydon. She glanced at the posters on the table. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we went through another upheaval. What has changed? Nothing.”

Leave a Reply