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SVROs: a new weapon in the fight against knife crime

Merseyside is one of a few forces who will pilot new orders designed to put persistent knife crime offenders on the back foot

A significant extension of police powers which could see some offenders subject to stop and search every day for up two years is about to be tested in four major police force areas.

Serious violence and knife crime lead, Supt Philip Mullally will be heading up the upcoming Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVROs) pilot in Merseyside from April 2023. The other forces holding pilots are Thames Valley, Sussex and West Midlands.

SVROs are designed to tackle high risk offenders and support the force’s wider approach and strategy towards serious violence (Operation Target is a dedicated response to tackling serious violent crime and partnership work with the Merseyside Violence Reduction Partnership (VRP)).

Unlike some of the other forces involved in the pilot, which will last for two years, Merseyside has decided to use SVROs across the whole of the force.

Supt Mullally told Police Oracle: “I know one or two of the other forces have considered a smaller location such as a BCU [Merseyside call them Local Policing Areas (LPAs) of which there are 5]. Our intention is to launch it right across the force and in all communities because knife crime affects all communities and we believe by pushing it out to the whole force we have the best opportunity of making a positive impact.”

Any SRVO lasts for a minimum of six months and a maximum of two years. The force can apply for an order on the back of an individual being charged with a knife crime offence or offensive weapon offence.

An application form will ask questions about proportionality and justification and this is put to a magistrate or judge at a Crown Court. “We have to justify to the court why an individual should have an SVRO,” says Supt Mullally. The orders are designed to be applied to individuals not groups but there will be situations in which they might be considered against more than one person.

He explains: “The nuance around the legislation is that if a co-accused has the knife we can apply for an order if we can prove that person B knew or ought to have known that there was a knife present during the commission of the offence. So even if the individual has not had the knife in their hands but the co-accused has we can apply for an order on both individuals.”

The orders can only be served on offenders who are over 18 and those subject to an order can only be stopped and searched in a public place.

There are a number of conditions to SVROS that will be set by the court. A recipient of an order must register their name and address at a police station within three days of receiving it. They must also notify the police if they are subject to an SVRO when asked. If they lie they have breached the terms of the order and can be arrested.

They are not allowed to obstruct the officer in the exercise of their powers which means an officer can search them in a public space without grounds or suspicion at any time while the order is still in place.

SVROs will have a marker on the PNC almost instantaneously once they have been served and officers will also be briefed at local level about individuals who are subject to them. As all recipients will have been charged their fingerprints, DNA and photograph will also be available.

The courts will consider applications for SVROs

Officers need to be aware that the order applies to an individual so they cannot, for example, search five other people the subject may be with, without reasonable grounds or suspicion. They would also not be able to search a vehicle the recipient was travelling in without reasonable grounds.

Breaches of an SVRO will be a serious criminal offence with a power of arrest. If someone breaches an order by carrying a further weapon that will be considered an aggravating factor that the courts should treat with severity. (Under the Home Office guidance for the pilots the penalty for breaching an order on summary conviction is imprisonment for a maximum of 12 months or a fine (unlimited) or both.)

So how will it be decided if the SVRO is the best course of an action for an offender? Supt Mullally explains: “If an individual is stopped with a knife and goes to court on the back of that case the force may also apply for an SVRO. The magistrate will decide on the relevant punishment  - such as a community order or fine around possession of the bladed article – but the SVRO will be an additional measure to that."

SVROs are clearly intended to be used differently to other knife crime legislation such as S60 orders, for example, which are only granted if there is risk of serious violence occurring in a specific area. Merseyside Police rarely goes for the S60 option. “It is a reactive power,” says Supt Mullally. “An SVRO will be a proactive, preventative power. You are in effect undertaking a search of an individual before they have had an opportunity to commit a further offence. You are getting into the mind set of individuals to get them thinking ‘I could be stopped twice a day, every day for the next six months.’

The other difference is that a Section 60 order will often last for only a few hours and as public notice is generally given that it is about to be imposed individuals who may fear its consequences will decide to steer clear of the locale while it is in place.

With the SVRO no matter where they are in a public place they can be searched. It is designed to put the offender on the back foot 24/7.

 "You are getting into the mind set of individuals to get them thinking ‘I could be stopped twice a day, every day for the next six months.’ "

Merseyside will use intelligence to target those who it suspects are involved in knife crime.

“We target the offenders who are causing the most harm,” says Supt Mullally. “We will have the ability to identify who our knife carriers are based on intelligence and previous offending. We will be trying to stop them and if they are in possession of a blade we will apply for an SVRO on the back of that which will give us increase powers for the future.”

The pilot is a few months away still but the force has already underlined a few factors that will dictate its success or failure. Top of the list is the danger of disproportionality Supt Mullally says:

“We are very much alive to who gets an SVRO and why. We will have daily scrutiny in Merseyside evaluating the use of the applications.”

Another potential issue is the effective identification and tracking of cases. “We are rolling out training to a few thousand staff to make sure every opportunity is taken to apply for an SVRO so that applications are sent in to the court in sufficient numbers, he says.”

Supt Mullally told Police Oracle that in preparation for the start of the pilot in April the force has mounted a significant communications and engagement strategy with the community to explain the new powers.

“Given that a key element of the orders is stop and search without grounds and reasonable suspicion, there is clearly an element of community consultation that needs to take place,” he adds.

An independent third party organisation will be evaluating the pilots nationally for the Home Office so force data and IT around the use of SVROs will also be key to present evidence that the pilots have been effective. If the case is proven the legislation will be rolled out nationally.

Supt Mullally adds: “Going forward we will need an understanding of the real impact it has had on knife crime and the individuals. Significant elements of that evaluation will be around disproportionality. They will look at for example cases where we have considered SVROs but not applied for them and those cases we have applied for.”

Is a possible weakness to the pilots that the orders will not apply to anyone under 18? Supt Mullally thinks not. “In Merseyside we have a high proportion of over 18s who are both victims and offenders of knife crime,” he says. “I think it is a bit of a policing myth that this is solely a youth issue  - it is a societal issue.”

He also points out that SVROs are a significant new police power that is best tested during a pilot on adult offenders given that you can stop and search individuals multiple times without justifiable suspicion.

But also given that it is a pilot, the results at the end of the two years may show that there is a justifiable case for it being used on youth offenders.

The data that comes from the pilots in all the participating forces will be a crucial factor in deciding whether this signifcant new power stands or falls. 

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