Stop and search: black lives matter

In mid-December 2014, the now infamous STRIKE! posters on policing practices emerged across London, highlighting ethnic disproportionality in stop and search figures, among other observations and concerns regarding the use of police powers in the capital. Much of the response to the posters side-stepped the issues raised and instead focused on the accuracy of the statistics and copyright (emails from the City of London Police PR team were fired to STRIKE! about the adaptation of their logo). The actual issue of racial disparity that exists in stop and search, however, was met with deafening silence. With the interrogation of the statistic conveniently missing the point, it effectively legitimises disproportionality, an indefensible and illogical effect of local policing - as long as it is accurately quoted.

Police reactions on the street took a less communicative approach. Social media accounts and media reports from three sites where the posters were displayed claimed that officers were cordoning off the posters with crime scene tape, prohibiting passers-by from taking photos, with some twitter users reporting that police were even confiscating phones if members of the public chose not to take their warnings seriously. In this way the police were able to silence others and shut down debate where there was a uniquely ripe opportunity for them to meaningfully engage with the community on a contentious issue in a non-confrontational context. Ignoring for the moment that seizing phones in such a situation would be entirely unlawful, the police response was also hugely disproportionate, ploughing resources and time into this harmless action when the communities of Lewisham and Tower Hamlets would no doubt have more pressing crime and safety concerns they would rather receive the same level of attention. In fact, the over-reaction seems so hackneyed it would be difficult to believe, did it not mirror the way police often stop and search young people, where criticism and demands for explanations are often rebutted with indignation; where phones are confiscated, then scanned and wiped back at the station; where wallets are searched for ID in order to take a person’s details even though they are entitled not to give their name, and in the absence of anything more substantial, the law is skewed to fabricate a justification for their actions, which leaves young people more confused than ever about the law and their rights.

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (‘PACE’) governs the use of the vast majority of police powers and stipulates that a person can only be stopped and searched if there are reasonable grounds for suspicion that they may be in possession of a stolen or prohibited item (there are also powers to stop and search someone without reasonable suspicion but these account for a very small percentage of overall stop and searches). The police officer must, after identifying themselves, inform the person being searched of the legal power being applied, the purpose of the search and what the grounds for suspicion are. They must then complete a record of the search and offer a copy to the individual. Leaving aside extensive guidelines and training on how to treat other people with respect and courtesy, these are the minimum legal obligations on the part of the officer. Simple. One would think.

As part of Y-Stop, a stop and search project we recently launched that aims to equip young people with the tools and knowledge to handle their police interactions, we spend time with young people at the receiving end of disproportionate and aggressive policing to learn about their stop and search experiences. We repeatedly hear stories of police bullying, contempt and flouting the law in any way that suits as a means to an end, including the invention of “random stop and searches”. The reasonable grounds they have been provided with include “looking over-confident”, running (whilst dressed in full running gear), and the ubiquitous “smelling of cannabis”. It is the latter offering, a flimsy excuse for intelligence that is so subjective and impossible to prove or disprove, that makes young people trying to exercise their rights so often capitulate to the search, yet the interaction justifiably builds resentment and frustration in communities who feel the reason is being used discreditably. When a police officer has made their mind up to stop, exert authority over and intrude upon a person, an impalpable smell of cannabis is the lowest hanging fruit that allows them to do so.

If young people feel that their rights are routinely disregarded and disrespected, they lose faith that police will handle stop and search in a fair and appropriate way and so the cycle of mistrust is set in motion. In this context we soon realised that the very idea of know-your-rights education is called into question. As an alternative approach, the young people we work with through Y-Stop developed material and advice that was streetwise, practical and would be useful in their actual experiences with police. So less about what police are allowed to do to them and more about what young people themselves can do to influence the outcome. This harm reduction approach is one that we hope will lead to fewer and shorter interactions with the police, a bleak but very real tactic for keeping safe on the street.

The police decision to focus on low level offences such as cannabis possession, another concern raised by the posters, rather than violent crimes that destroy lives, families and homes, is one that heavily affects BME communities. Across the world drugs have been dubiously policed to exercise control over the black community and evidence shows us this is no different in the UK. A 2013 report on racial disparities in the policing and prosecution of drug offences in England and Wales by Release (the drug charity that runs Y-Stop) and the London School of Economics exposed stop and searches for drugs as a key element in reproducing racial inequalityii. The subject of much debate in the STRIKE! posters, the disproportionality rates in the report were based on 2009/10 data that has not moved much in this regard and states that where a black person is 5.6 times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterpart, when focusing specifically on drug searches, that rises to 6.3 times. Remove drugs from the equation and the figure drops dramatically to 5 times, demonstrating drug policing to be the main driver of disproportionality that exists across the criminal justice spectrum.

One might be forgiven for thinking that this unequal treatment could be logical if police are working with data showing them that drug use is higher in certain communities. But this is simply not the case: the report highlights that government data shows that black people are less likely to use drugs than their white counterparts. Further, for the same drug offence our justice system deals with black people much more harshly at the stages of arrest, charge and sentencing. Release and LSE found that black people caught in possession of cannabis were twice as likely to be charged as those who are white and, staggeringly, for those in possession of cocaine, 44% of white people are charged with the remainder let off with a caution, compared to 78% of black people charged. Even when taking into account previous convictions that may account for harsher sanctions, Release found that inequity still exists across first time offences.

So far no luck in justifying this policing method. Because something as objective as policing would not just be based on something as arbitrary as prejudice, would it?

From diverse examples of whimsical policing - where teenagers’ phones are taken for no legitimate reason; where those less likely to carry drugs are more likely to be searched for them; where posters demand a full investigation - public frustration about policing practices needs to be urgently engaged with, not cordoned off, ripped down and intimidated into retraction. From Ferguson to Tottenham, there are numerous warnings for what can happen when people feel their legitimate concerns about police conduct are not being listened to. To shut down debate is not only unwise, it is irresponsible.

The posters were unveiled in the same week that G4S security guards were acquitted of murdering Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga, with a judge assessing that racist texts were irrelevant evidence of whether they intended to harm him, that his final words of “I can’t breathe” were echoed in New York by Eric Garner pleading with the officer who put him in a fatal chokehold, that they also gained notoriety in the wake of widespread international action condemning police violence. During that same week, two reports were also published that elicit concerns over the treatment of BME groups throughout the British criminal justice system. The first, from the charities Black Training & Enterprise Group and Clinks highlights the over-representation of black and Muslim people within prisons, as well as consistently lower rates of satisfaction of offenders, being negatively impacted by racialised stereotypes and differential treatment. These findings illustrate their rehabilitation is inadequately supported, increasing risk of reoffending. The second report, from the London Assembly, demonstrates the multiple ways that the same communities are discriminated against throughout recruitment and employment of London’s Metropolitan Police force, all at a time when the Met is desperate to recruit a more diverse workforce that more accurately represents the capital. These headlines, although distinct in their topics, bring to light manifold discrepancies in a justice system that dis-serves ethnic minority groups in untold ways, from judges to prison guards, police officers to probation regimes. They add to a building sense of racial injustice and police impunity.

It might not always happen on the police’s terms - in fact, it is more significant when it is not - but however unconventionally it is thrust into the limelight, young people’s concerns about stop and search have to be engaged with sincerely. When it is not merely a street encounter, but a critical entry point into a criminal justice system that unleashes expansive inequities, we can accept nothing less than parity in rates of ethnic disproportionality. Stop and search unleashes a vicious criminal justice system onto black communities; the potential to affirm that black lives matter lies with radical reform of stop and search. 

By Natasha Dhumma

This article was originally published by Strike! and has been republished here with their kind permission.

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