“Six more stabbings in a night – now urgent review of police crime tactics is launched.”
No, the Evening Standard headline of 9 May wasn’t referring to what it likes to call “carnage at Carnival”, but sadly reflected an ‘ordinary’ night in London.
The depressing litany of lives needlessly lost and others ruined beyond repair has been filling the capital’s evening paper night after night. By 28 May, this year’s total had reached 62 dead, 37 of them stabbed. The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) reported that almost 13,000 “knife crimes” (an imprecise term) took place in London in the year up to September 2017.
So what’s all that got to do with Carnival? Absolutely nothing – except that the Met, the media (especially the Evening Standard), certain politicians and the secretive Notting Hill Carnival Strategic Partners Group (SPG) use crime as a stick to beat Carnival with. Supposedly excessive levels of crime are used as the justification for restricting everything from pub opening hours to the number of mas bands on the road. It’s as if the SPG and the Met believe the presence of masqueraders, steel bands and sound systems have a uniquely magnetic attraction for the capital’s thugs and thieves.
The numbers game
The MPS press office is always keen to emphasise the allegedly dangerous and out of control nature of Notting Hill Carnival, citing the numbers of crimes committed and people arrested. So let’s look at some of those numbers in more detail.
Last year, around 6,000 officers were deployed on the Sunday and Monday, according to Kensington & Chelsea Council (RBKC). The number on the street at any one time will actually be far lower, as a Carnival day spans two shifts. Also, many officers are held in reserve all day but never deployed. Rather than 6,000 men and women in blue patrolling the streets, in all likelihood only half that number have their boots on the tarmac at any one time – but that’s not something the MPS wants you to know.
Attendance at Carnival is notoriously hard to estimate. Unlike a park-based event, Notting Hill has multiple entrances and exits and the crowd is constantly on the move. Last year, the SPG commissioned crowd control analysts Movement Strategies to calculate numbers and identify crush points at Notting Hill. There was little in its report that we didn’t know already and much of the rest showed a serious lack of understanding of the event, but the SPG has apparently commissioned it to carry out further research at Carnival 2018.
A figure of one million visitors is commonly used, but it could easily be half that number or twice as many. The demographic is probably more important, particularly the age range and ‘profile’ of carnivalgoers. Many will be between 15 and 35 years old – exactly the group that dominates London’s serious crime statistics, both as perpetrators and as victims. So a higher than average crime rate over the August Bank Holiday would not be surprising.
Last year, the MPS said it made 326 arrests. A word of caution: there is no independent verification of these figures and the force refuses to say how many of those arrested are ever brought to court and convicted. In fact, the Met claims it cannot even tell you where the arrests were made, so the arrest of someone “at Notting Hill Carnival” may have occurred several miles from Ladbroke Grove. Indeed, the arrest may have been completely unrelated to Carnival – as we know has been the case in the past.
In its post-NHC 2017 report, even RBKC recognised that bare statistics can be misleading:
Many of the arrests were police generated and ‘victimless crimes’, such as possession of a weapon rather than reactive victim based allegations. This has naturally increased the numbers of crime allegations recorded. However, there was a slight increase in theft from 25 in 2016 to 32 in 2017, and crime and disorder on the Mondaynightwas significant, with an increase in sexual crimes.
What constitutes “a weapon” depends on context, of course: a screwdriver in the workshop is innocent enough, but if you’re found carrying one, even with equally innocent intent, on Carnival Monday you’re likely to be in trouble. Every mas band goes on the road with essential tools that might be classified as weapons were they to be carried by other people. And when does a harmless wine become “sexual assault”? Essentially, when it’s unwelcome and unasked for, of course, but in the heady hedonism of Carnival the line between the two can be hard for an inebriated reveller to distinguish. That’s not to excuse seriously bad behaviour, but simply a reality check. “Crime” at Carnival is rarely a black and white issue.
Where the truth lies
Remember that statistic of 13,000 “knife crimes” committed in London last year? That works out at around 35 a day. The number of arrests at Carnival 2017 for “offensive weapon or pointed or bladed article” was 50, so well under the capital’s two-day average. And although much fuss was made about a claim of 31 police officers assaulted, only 12 people were arrested for “assault on police”. That suggests the other 19 “assaults” were not especially serious. But again, we have no idea where the truth lies. The usually loud-mouthed MPS press office went silent when asked what happened in those cases. That left newspaper headline writers free to suggest that 31 brave officers had been brutally attacked by rampaging carnivalgoers. The reality was probably far less dramatic.
While any and all crime, especially violent crime and especially at Carnival, is to be deplored, it is a problem that needs to be kept in perspective. Soca News readers don’t need to be told that few carnivalgoers become victims of crime at Notting Hill Carnival. However, millions of people around Britain who have never been to Notting Hill do believe what they see and hear from mainstream and social media. That’s why Carnival’s media profile – so dire for so long – really matters.
And until we have real transparency, clarity and objectivity at the MPS, it’s impossible to arrive at a sensible impression of true crime levels at Carnival.
Grime and punishment
Policing Notting Hill Carnival isn’t easy, and the writer has been impressed by the calmness and professionalism of officers in situations that would cause most of us to lose our rag. All credit to them. But they are ill-served by a manipulative press office and police commanders who deliberately serve up half-truths and misinformation to under-resourced and uncritical media. They, in turn, retail these poisonous myths as sensationalist click-bait for their readers.
What exactly does the force gain from being (in the words of former Kensington & Chelsea MP Alan Clark) “economical with the actualité”? The Met’s agenda – and it certainly has one – is less about destroying Carnival than justifying its demands for ever-greater resources. The more dangerous Notting Hill is made to appear, the more reasonable seem the calls for more money, more officers and more extreme measures, such as facial recognition software. Carnival is being used as a lobbying tool.
There are signs that a media policy built on half-truths is backfiring, however. Last year, the force’s public credibility received a big knock when Stormzy skewered the MPS press office for pretending that drugs found in distant parts of the metropolis were somehow linked to August bank holiday’s bacchanal “in the run up to Notting Hill Carnival”. Sadly, it wasn’t Carnival’s leadership who called ‘time’ on the Met’s game but the grime star who gave the press office the kick it so richly deserved.
An end to smoke and mirrors
Notting Hill Carnival has lived on the edge right from the start, so ‘drinking in the last chance saloon’ has become second nature to everyone involved. But this time the size 12 boot may be on the other foot. The Metropolitan Police’s use of smoke and mirrors may work on lazy journalists, but it hasn’t altered the raw, hard facts on the street. On 8 May, the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee announced that it “wants answers to why this upsurge [in serious crime] is happening, why policing tactics are failing and what can be done to keep Londoners safe.”
This should be our chance to show that, as Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad wrote in her blog, “Carnival doesn’t create crime. Criminals attend Carnival.” It’s not Carnival’s job to keep criminals away from Notting Hill; that responsibility lies squarely with the Metropolitan Police.
The Met, the councils and the media need to stop using Carnival as a scapegoat. If it is to regain trust, the force must back up its statements and statistics with independently verifiable evidence, stop using its press office as a propaganda machine and get on with its core role of “keeping Londoners safe”. Journalists should have the guts to challenge police press releases and statistics instead of treating them as if they had been engraved on tablets of stone. And rather than treating Carnival as a nuisance that must be curtailed and controlled, RBKC and Westminster Council should nurture it and celebrate the social, cultural and economic value it brings to us all.
As for Notting Hill’s leadership, they must show they have the authority and the will to fight off the conspirators in the SPG who seek to control, coerce and crush our Carnival.