The Met police and the safety paradox: please stop focusing on the (wrong) drugs

by Dr Giulia Zampini

Logging back onto Twitter after the Christmas break, I was welcomed by a small twitterstorm about the Metropolitan police swabbing people, testing for drugs in Shoreditch.

The Met published a short video on Twitter with the heading:

Taskforce Officers were out recently doing drug swabs in Shoreditch as part of a wider operation to ensure the night time economy is a safe place for all

The clip is made to sound like a Shoreditch club, with a sleek tech house tune in the backdrop, edited to “look cool”.

The Twitter backlash to the Met initiative was immediate. Many questioned whether this initiative was really about safety, arguing instead that this was a PR stunt, so the Met can be perceived as if they are doing something about safety.

Ever since the Sarah Everard murder, fear for women’s safety has forcefully re-entered the public arena in a manner that resembles the public outcry in response to the Yorkshire Ripper murders in the 1970s and ‘80s. Such fear has manifested tangibly in debates about spiking. While the Met did not explicitly state that this initiative was intended to tackle drink spiking, the spiking issue has come to symbolise women’s feelings of unsafety in the night time economy.

Reports of spiking incidents to the police increased rapidly after the end of the 2021 lockdown, as night time venues began to reopen. Campaigning organisations such as Girls’ Night In, which built a huge following on Instagram in a very short space of time, began calling for a more punitive response to spiking by both club security and law enforcement.

This created an opportunity for the police to portray itself as the patron of women’s safety after its plunge in popularity in the wake of Everard’s murder. The so called ‘spiking epidemic’ has provided the police with ammunition to address its public perception problem. Instead of addressing the patriarchal culture of abuse and misogyny that is rife within male-dominated institutions, the police reverted to the false sense of safety provided by street presence and drug swabs.

The backlash to drug testing

Following backlash against the video, the Met police issued a statement saying its operation was not merely about drug swabs, but also about meaningfully engaging with the community and night time economy, for example by speaking to students in schools and targeting unlicensed minicabs. The outcome of the drug swab side of the operation was 15 searches in total and one arrest of a woman on drug possession charges.  

In the statement, the Met police made two claims: that the ‘week of action’ involving this taskforce was orchestrated to address ‘a spike in incidents where women and girls have been made to feel unsafe or have been victims of crime’ and that ‘there is an inextricable link between Class A drugs and serious crime and violence on the streets of London’.

While there has been ‘a spike in incidents’ reported to the police (note the use of language here, the choice of the word spike may be no accident), this is no indication that such incidents have been increasing in real terms. The Office for National Statistics maintains that gender-based violence has remained fairly stable over the past decade. Such increased reporting is likely motivated by a range of factors. An educated guess would point to a combination of increasing fear coupled with decreasing tolerance towards abusive behaviour, propped up by campaigns and louder advocacy in the mainstream.

Do drugs cause violence?

The term ‘Class A drugs’ carries very little precision. Many drugs fall under this category, and as such it is impossible to distinguish which Class A drugs are, according to the police, ‘inextricably linked with serious crime and violence on the streets of London’.

While some violence does plague populations that use drugs such as alcohol, crack cocaine and heroin and spend time on the streets, drugs are not a direct cause of such violence. Besides, the one drug that is most often associated with violent incidents is alcohol. Whether is it sexual or physical violence, the drug alcohol is often in the picture.

In 2017/8, 39% of violent incidents were reported to have been alcohol related. A 2015 bulletin by the Office for National Statistics estimated there were 704,000 alcohol related violent incidents in the years 2013/2014, with 70% of violent incidents occurring at the weekend, in the evening or at night being alcohol related.

So why the focus on Class A drugs? Some of the popular drugs that fall under such category (e.g. MDMA, heroin) are seldom associated with violent behaviour unless they are consumed together with other substances like alcohol, cocaine and crack cocaine. Painting Class A drugs as a violence fraught category is a cheap strategy to seek public support by alcohol-drinking but not-drug-using sections of the public who have little knowledge or understanding of how the night time economy operates.

How to stay safe in night time venues?

If the police want to keep people safe, there are a number of tried and tested harm reduction interventions that have a proven track record: drug checking, or checking the content of drugs and providing harm reduction advice to users, keeps people safer. Non-punitive, caring measures should be put in place to support people’s safety in night time venues. Non-judgemental, harm reduction work and drug checking services should be made available in night time venues to help people make informed choices about the risks they take.  A non-punitive approach may also reduce the likelihood that people engage in risky behaviours associated with fear of being detected by law enforcement and venue security staff, such as taking large quantities of drugs upon entry.

During the Shoreditch drug swabs operation, a woman was seen ‘disposing of a suspicious package’, likely out of fear of the police, and was arrested for possession of a Class A substance. Now, she has a criminal record that will affect her life chances. Does this count as ensuring people’s safety in any meaningful way?

Many venues around the country have adopted the Ask for Angela campaign, with posters littered around inviting people to “Ask for Angela” at the bar if they are feeling unsafe. However, this campaign puts the onus of responsibility on individuals to seek help, rather than adopting a more proactive approach based on comprehensive staff training, which this investigation found to be lacking. Indeed, such a proactive approach would negate the need to pick up the pieces afterwards.

Learning from the BDSM scene

Some party promoters, particularly in the context of the BDSM and queer scenes, have invested in training and hiring consent monitors, tasked with ensuring people’s safety during interactions in clubs and other venues. Just because sexual interactions are at the heart of these types of parties, does not mean roles such as consent monitors cannot be used elsewhere. We all have much to learn about safety and consent from people who practice BDSM and should take inspiration from approaches to safety that are pioneered in the scene.

Club staff should be trained to spot and challenge harassers, rather than people using drugs, because they are the ones who threaten people’s safety. Meanwhile, the police should look to address their many contradictions if they are serious about purveying safety instead of posturing. The paradox here is that institutions that exist to ensure people’s safety, whether it is club staff or the police, end up creating more dangerous environments by focusing on (the wrong) drugs, rather than people.

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