What is it about the police and stopping black people in cars? In the last month, the Met had to apologise to the sprinter Bianca Williams, after she was pulled over while driving, and to Dawn Butler, the Labour MP for Brent Central. Danny Rose, the Spurs footballer, has complained that the same thing has happened to him on numerous occasions.
Well, part of the problem is: we don’t know what the story is. While we have copious amounts of data on who is stopped and searched and what happened next, which allows us to see which police forces are using it well and which are using it badly, we don’t collect specific information about traffic stops. It’s only if they end in a stop and search that they are logged and counted. Anyone who is stopped and sent on their way is never logged. And many other important factors, like the type of car stopped, are never logged.
The major advantage of data collection is that it allows us to quantify and measure the scale of a problem. Thanks to the Government’s measurement of stop and search, we know that police in Durham use stop-and-search pretty much equally, and are much better at catching criminals with it than any other police force. We know that the Metropolitan Police is more likely to search black people than white people, and Merseyside Police are more likely to search white people than black people: and neither of them are as good at searching the right people as police in Durham.
Durham is a lovely place, and its police force is consistently ranked as the best in the country. But that isn’t because Durham coppers are better human beings than police officers in London or Liverpool: it’s because they have strong institutions and good support to be the best police officers they can be.
Across the rest of the British state, politicians, particularly in England, are obsessed with using data to track who is doing best, who is doing the worst, and encouraging, in some cases forcing, the least well-performing examples to behave and become more like the best. That passion is at its strongest around teachers, who are in the news again thanks to the row over exam results. Is there anything we can learn from the way we treat teachers that can improve policing?
Exams did not take place this year, and so students will instead receive a grade based on a combination of ranked, predicted grades by teachers and statistical modelling of previous years by the exams watchdog.
The problem is that many students will be given worse results than they were predicted by their teachers — and that the children themselves have had no opportunity to shape their own futures. But why didn’t teachers just predict more accurate results in the first place?
The gap is large — among the most privileged children, if only predicted results were handed out, they would do 10 percentage points better — it is almost double that for the least. Why the disparity? Why were the teachers’ assessments so different from those of the exam watchdog? Well, the short answer is, they weren’t: the average schoolteacher in the United Kingdom gets four-fifths of their predictions right. A fifth of their students will defy predictions — some will do better, some will do worse.
But actually, getting four-fifths of your predictions right is a pretty good haul. Any investor who could reliably pick which of their stocks would flourish and fail month-to-month on that basis would be quids in.
Human error is inevitable, and of course, teachers, like everybody else, have their own biases. A child who works very hard but still struggles to pass English and maths no matter what they do is likely to get the odd generous C here and there from a teacher who hopes their effort and application might be rewarded.
A brilliant but lazy pupil who glides their way through life might get the odd predicted B as an expression of the teacher’s desire that their lack of preparation and effort might, some day, cause them to come a cropper. And sometimes, you know, a teacher, like the rest of us, can simply get it wrong.
Because of all that, we have built huge and extensive systems to monitor what teachers do, to help them improve and crucially to reverse and prevent injustices. We don’t do this because we think teachers are wicked, or more prone to prejudice than anyone else. We do it because we accept that teachers are human beings doing highly difficult jobs.
Debate often devolves into a pointless row over whether officers are superhumans or must be abolished entirely
The political debate around policing can often devolve into a pointless fight between people who think that police officers are superhumans who can do no wrong, and nothing can convince them otherwise, and those who think that they are doing an impossible job and that the only way to improve things is to abolish the force entirely.
Of course, neither is true: police officers are human beings doing a difficult job, and just as with the rest of us, they need both support to do the best one they can and accountability over what they are getting wrong.
We could simply improve outcomes for everyone just by treating police officers like politicians do teachers: hardworking and well-meaning people who are doing the best they can, but who have plenty of their own prejudices and hang-ups, too.
Taking that approach to schools hasn’t been costless, but it has seen huge improvements in the quality of education: the last 30 years have seen major changes, particularly in London.
Imagine what we could do, how much better our police would be, and how much easier they could find their jobs — and how many more people could go about their business on foot or by car perfectly safely.
- Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman