Stop & Search: How to Hurt Communities and Alienate People

Looking over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s crime reduction measures, it’s hard to not feel cynical and worried. After all, there’s a lot more here than meets the eye.

For example, you’d think that the proposed employment of 20,000 additional police officers by 2022 - to a police force desperately crying out for numbers - would be a good thing. According to figures produced in March 2019, there are just over 123,000 police officers in England and Wales – but we used to have 143,000 officers in 2010.

The promise of 10,000 additional prison spaces to be created by 2020, meanwhile, is also seemingly positive – if ‘positive’ is the right word when there are so many criminals that we need more places to put them? Maybe some additional police might have acted as a deterrent? Further to that, this target will only be met through work on HMP Full Sutton, a prison whose enlargement has actually been planned since 2016 – well before this promise was made. “We’ll complete existing work, rather than offer anything new.”

Arguably the proposal of most concern is an expansion of stop-and-search laws, allowing police forces across England and Wales to carry out stop-and-searches without authorisation from a senior officer. Stop-and-search, of course, is a police practice which has been largely abandoned over the last decade; but there remain genuine beliefs that the practice is racist, with young black men seemingly targeted significantly more than any other demographic.

Whether it be through police stop-and-search of black citizens, or lengthy airport detention for Middle Eastern citizens, racial profiling can leave a victim and/or their community feeling isolated, violated, and scapegoated for a misinformed, generalised belief. With the results of the Brexit referendum perceived as validation for many with racist views, people of black and minority ethnic backgrounds in the UK are already having to keep their guards up more than ever before. Stop-and-search could take that to a whole new level.

Twitter is awash with footage of police mistreatment, brutality, and even murder of BAME citizens (black, Asian and minority ethnic) in America. You’ll find a video of a policeman pulling a gun on a Hispanic customer because he felt that he was stealing a 92p tube of mints – even when the shopkeeper confirmed that the man had paid. You’ll find videos of a black man being questioned by police when putting rubbish outside his own home. Worst of all, you’ll find footage of a black woman being shot dead – while playing video games in her own home – by police that were responding to an enquiry about that same woman’s welfare.

All of these stemmed from the same thing: a belief by a police officer that a person is committing an offence, based on nothing but the way they look. Statistics show that police in the UK may be profiling citizens in a similar way.

According to analysis conducted by the London School of Economics and Political Science, by 2016-17 - that’s six years after official concerns that stop-and-search was an ethnically discriminatory practice - black people were stopped and searched for drugs 8.7 times more than their white counterparts, and 7.9 times more for other offences.

In March 2019, when asked about the seemingly racist targeting for stop-and-search, Dame Sara Thornton QPM, then-chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said, “We need to be absolutely clear that we use the police tactic of stop and search based on intelligence and information. We treat people with respect and fairly and we mustn't shy away just because of those sorts of considerations.”

What Dame Thornton said, then, is that stop-and-search is effective enough for the police to endure accusations of racism. But is it actually effective? Zainab Asunramu, a parliamentary searcher for

Prospect Magazine, writes about a conversation they had with a criminal law barrister. “‘Stop and search,’ she added, ‘does little in the way of detecting real crime.’ The environment of mistrust caused by stop and search harms communities.”

In the same article, Ms. Asunramu interviews Jake Wiafe, described as a young, black YouTuber, who talks about the effect of stop-and-search on public perception of communities: “We have to bear in mind that when [people] visualise young offenders, they’re not going to imagine their own kids,” Wiafe argues, “they’re going to imagine a kid who looks like me, so it’s much easier to treat them as a criminal who can be harassed by the police rather than a young person who has been failed by society.”

David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, has openly backed this argument. “The disproportionate use of stop and search is not only born out of, but also perpetuates, a paranoid and generalised suspicion toward an entire community.” The police may be able to shrug off accusations of racism, but it is not as easy for communities to shrug off misinformed perceptions of the public.

Despite evidence of racially discriminatory practice, then, a lack of clear evidence about its efficacy, and a damaging effect on local communities - an increase to stop-and-search appears to be the UK’s latest solution to rising crime figures. In an age where racial attitudes are having a significant impact on all citizens of the world, a relaxation of stop-and-search laws looks set to be the latest failing the UK government will have to undo later.

Aman Pathiara is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service – an organisation of immigration lawyers that offers free advice and support for asylum-seekers and victims of abuse.

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