MINISTERS hope an extension of stop and search powers will help police fight burgeoning knife violence.

But police chiefs in Wiltshire say the changes unveiled by the prime minister will make little difference to their day-to-day.

On Sunday, Boris Johnson announced that a pilot tested in some of England’s biggest cities would be rolled out nationwide. The changes should make it easier for officers to use powers under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

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Police officers would be able to stop and search anyone in a designated area – without needing to show they have reasonable grounds to believe the suspect would carry out serious violence if he isn’t stopped. A superintendent or inspector could give the go ahead for officers to make the Section 60 stops and the length of time the order is allowed to run will be extended from 39 hours to 48.

Priti Patel, home secretary, said: “We are experiencing a knife crime epidemic and I am determined to put a stop to it. Police chiefs are clear - stop and search is a vital tool in combatting the scourge of serious violence and keeping people safe.”

In Wiltshire, use of stop and search generally has plummeted over the last decade. It hit a 10 year high in 2013/14, with 6,577 stops. In 2017/18, the latest year for which figures are available, there were just over 1,000 stops.

And chiefs at the Wiltshire force say it is three years since they last signed off a Section 60 order authorising their officers to stop and search youngsters without reasonable grounds to suspect they are up to no good.

Angus Macpherson, police and crime commissioner, told the Adver: “I think it’s to be welcomed that it’s going to be easier for police to use Section 60 powers.

Swindon Advertiser:

Angus Macpherson and Chief Constable Kier Pritchard in Swindon town centre Picture: CALYX

“On the other hand, we must remember those powers have not been used in Wiltshire in the last three years.

“In Wiltshire, yes we have knife crime – we admit that – but it’s not on a level over an area where they’ve been trialling the Section 60 orders.

“I would hope the work we’re doing through prevention and education means we won’t have to instate them.”

That was echoed by Insp Mark Calland, head of custody at Wiltshire Police. "Wiltshire remains a very safe county with our knife crime incidents still well below the national average,” he said.

“However, we are never complacent when it comes to knife crime and continue to run a wide range of awareness campaigns in the community encouraging people to report incidents involving knives and weapons, as well as carrying out increased proactive work to crack down on the issue.”

Swindon Advertiser:

This knife was seized from a youth dealt with at Swindon Youth Court for possession of an offensive weapon earlier this year Picture: WILTSHIRE POLICE

The officer said the simplifying of stop and search powers was to be welcomed. But he added: “Our policy in terms of carrying out stop and search remains unchanged, with the same amount of scrutiny applied to each case.”

As the use of stop and search has dropped, so knife crime in the county has risen.

The latest Home Office figures showed a 25 per cent increase last year in the number of people reported to police for possession of dangerous weapons like knives. Crimes involving blades were up for a sixth year in a row, with 187 assaults, 77 knifepoint robberies and two attempted murders.

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Youngsters told the Adver earlier this year they carried the dangerous weapons for protection against a sometimes imagined, sometimes all-too-real threat. A Park South 16-year-old, who admitted to taking a knife onto Swindon streets, said: “It’s not about who’s got the biggest knife. It’s just protection and fear – fear of being stabbed."

Aaron Webb, a youth worker with Central Swindon North Parish Council, said stop and search rarely came up when he was speaking to youngsters in Pinehurst and Penhill, wher he works. But he pressed on police the importance of approaching youngsters in an open, polite manner.

Cops were not always popular with the young people with whom he works. However, the tide could be turning: “One thing we’re trying to do is build that relationship.”