Statistically, it shouldn’t take long to find somebody who has been subject of a police stop and search – one in 17 black people in Tower Hamlets have had this experience. Yet it was depressingly predictable when the first person asked admits that yes, he is one of them.
“It was demeaning,” said Francis Johnson, 27, a youth worker from Bethnal Green. “Looking back now, I suppose we did look intimidating. Walking round in a big group – just chilling and doing our thing, but with tracksuit and hoodies up … but you shouldn’t be searched because of just that”
His thoughts come just a week after new Met Chief Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, announced that there needs to be a “radical overhaul” of stop and search tactics, with new limits on Section 60 searches – when someone can be stopped without ‘reasonable suspicion’.
The reforms will include a 50 per cent reduction of the number of times senior officers can authorise section 60 searches, and will aim to focus on stopping people suspected of violent offences, rather than minor drug offences such as possession of cannabis.
Stop and search has been widely criticised in the past by organisations such as Open Society Justice, Human Rights Watch Liberty and Stopwatch, which have voiced concerns about the disproportionate use of stop and search against ethnic minorities.
The policy is considered to be one of the key causes of the 1981 Brixton Riots, and has been pointed to as one possible factor in the spread of riots across Britain 20 years later. Interviewees in the Guardian’s ‘Reading the Riots’ research [link] described regular and degrading searches, with one saying it made them feel “not part of this society”.
Met figures from Oct 2010-Oct 2011 show that black people in London can be up to eight times more likely to be searched than a white person. In Croydon, for example, more black people were searched month on month than white people, despite the population of white people in the borough being five times greater. The arrest rate from searches is shockingly low – in Hackney last year it was never higher than 10 per cent. There are similar figures across other boroughs.
Johnson, who’s mother comes from Cameroon and father from Jamaica, is surprisingly philosophical about his past experiences – he hasn’t been searched for some years now and seems to attribute this to positive changes in his life. Smartly dressed, well informed and evidently passionate about his work, which often goes unpaid, he is reluctant to point to prejudices in the police force as to the reason why he used to get hassled.
“Now that I look back on it, I was just acting up. No one likes to get stopped – its not nice, but at the same time you act up when it happens. There are times when I feel the police may abuse it, but there are times when I feel it’s necessary, but to define the two is a grey area.”
However, Kamaljeet Gill, a member of the pressure group StopWatch – part of the Runnymede Trust – is adamant that people like Johnson should not have to make excuses for the reasons why police target certain demographics.
“I don’t think we should require that communities change the way they dress or behave in order to avoid getting excessive attention from the police.
“Some young people we talk to accept it as part of their daily life and some become angry, but there’s no dichotomy between these two things – they’re both negative reactions and damaging to communities.
“A reduction in stop and search will help to reduce tension between communities and the police, but there’s other things to be done.”
Scrutiny of Section 60 searches is just one aspect of the problem. Under the police and criminal evidence act (PACE), officers are only required to have ‘reasonable suspicion’ when they search someone.
“In the past the grounds for ‘reasonable suspicion’ have been, shall we say, lax or generous,” explains Gill.
“We’ll have to remain vigilant that these measures are put in place – we need to properly use the regulatory measures that exist.”
Duwayne Brooks, a Lib Dem councillor for Lewisham and friend of the late Stephen Lawrence, has been vocal for years about the destructive nature of stop and search on communities. Not surprisingly he is very unforgiving of the police: “The fact is the police have been doing a shit job – we’ve known that for years, it’s a fact. But we’ve got to look at why it’s not working.
Whether Hogan Howe is sincere or not is irrelevant – we want our streets to be safe. But it should never be a skin colour issue.”
Like Gill, Brooks explains that proper monitoring is crucial to preventing future abuse of stop and search. He argues there should be local groups where people who have been searched can go to register their experiences;
“Every borough should have effective checks and monitoring. People in their own boroughs need to act. Without checks, police can do what they want.”
The impact of the proposals will depend on the motivation behind the reform; some might see them as a genuine effort from the police to engage with ethnic minority groups, others as simply a pragmatic response to the threat of expensive and humiliating legal challenges.
With no mention from the Met of improving the ethnic disproportionality surrounding the use of Section 60, and PACE searches still raising eyebrows, it is likely that it will be some time before finding someone in London who has been subject of a police stop and search becomes the time consuming endeavour you would hope it to be.