Young people’s experiences of stop and search
Youth work focusing on the interaction between young people and the police is fraught with challenges. Second Wave is a community arts organisation based in Deptford, south-east London, working with young people aged 13-24. Over the past five years, Second Wave has developed an innovative programme to establish positive dialogue and reduce confrontation between local youth and police officers. The aim of its outreach programme is to increase confidence and challenge stereotypes on both sides. This programme is unique in that it provides a neutral and safe environment in which young people and the police can talk, listen, share ideas and experiences, and to explore different perceptions of each other.
Workshops are led by young people at Second Wave. Police officers attend on a voluntary basis (from Lewisham and the local Territorial Support Group, TSG4) in casual, plain clothes (not in uniform). This youth-centred approach establishes an atmosphere of equality, where the experiences of young people are taken seriously. Second Wave’s sessions are always vibrant, honest, open and creative.
In the ongoing debate about Stop and Search and its impact on communities, young people’s voices are seldom heard. Yet it is young people who bear the brunt of Stop and Search practice. Here, six young people [Ami Bah (16), Shanai Levy (17), Macey McMullen (18), Kloe Dean (20), Martins Imhangbe (18) and Creston Hamilton (19)] discuss the experience of Stop and Search from a youth perspective, and how positive relations between the police and young people can be encouraged. The issue of trust is paramount and the continual effort to build a long-term sustainable approach is consistently emphasised by Second Wave.
As young people, do the police help you to feel safe?
I just feel that, them knowing that they have authority over us, they intimidate us. It’s not a case of me feeling safer, it’s me cautioning myself. Cause they know they have the authority, they can say ‘You’re doing this’, section this and that. They know they have that power, they use that to intimidate you.
It shouldn’t be like that, it should be like, you see a policeman and you think ‘Oh, I’m safe walking down this road.’ You shouldn’t feel like you’re watching out for them.
You can’t really feel safe around anyone, cause everyone’s just a human being. But because we’re all human beings, the way we express ourselves, obviously it’s going to be different from the way the system wants it. But because they’re in the system, and they think that they run everything, they feel that they can undermine people. But they need to understand that everyone’s the same. So I don’t feel safe around nobody, really, cause you don’t know who’s going to turn around and say, ‘Yeah, you’ve done this, bam!’
I don’t think I’ve ever felt safe around any police officer. They’re meant to make you feel safe. But when they come into your space and they come into your house and they kick down your door, and there’s like ten of them running around your house, they’re not making you feel safe.
I think that if you interviewed a lot of young people, they will say that they are the biggest bullies…
They are a gang.
They are a gang, they like to stereotype us, but then again they’re the biggest gang.
Do you think you can rely on the police for protection?
I don’t think I can rely on the police. You can rely on them to a certain extent. But for example, people have been stabbed outside a police station, things like that. There was an instance, for example, me and my friend needed to get out of an area and we asked the police to take us out of that area. But they said no, take a bus. And as a result of that, someone ended up dying. If the police had taken us out of that area, that could have been avoided. It’s like they wait for something to happen before they take action. Sometimes when they take action, it’s too late. The police need to start listening, and acting quicker, one step ahead.
I feel like you can’t rely on them, and really and truly, the only place you do feel protected is within your own community, and your friends and your family.
If you cannot rely on the police, where does your sense of protection come from?
My sense of protection is with myself. Knowing the person I am, being hard headed, I make sure I don’t allow anyone in, I keep to myself. You have to keep to yourself but be aware, you know. If I’m about to go out, I make sure I call so many different types of people, and find out, what you hearing on the streets, what’s going on, who’s got trouble with who, what’s gonna happen, who’s going where. You need to know everything, cause you know you need to protect your own back. Cause police are only gonna come ten, fifteen minute after someone get stabbed, you know what I mean? So you need to make sure you’re not that person stabbed.
It’s nuts, you can say ‘I don’t like police, I don’t like police,’ but when you’re explaining it to people, they’re thinking ‘No but, but, but…’ But nothing, you’re not in a situation to really understand. So when it comes to young people expressing their views on police officers, not everyone gets it. So it just gets to a point where everyone just shut you down. And then when you really wanna express yourself, it just make you sound like a donut. It’s like, ‘Oh, you don’t know sugar’.
How do you identify the people you can trust? (Does this include police officers?)
You can say that you trust someone, but you can only say that out of experience. And you can only trust them in certain situations. You can’t say you fully trust them, you can only say you trust them to a certain extent.
You can’t really say ‘Ah, I’ve got full trust in anyone’. Cause at the end of the day, yeah, what is trust? You can trust them to a certain extent, for the information you give them, but at the end of the day, you’re the only one who knows what’s going on in your mind.
Can the level of confrontation between young people and the police be reduced? How can this be done?
It can be reduced, if both sides grow up. Cause some of the gang members, they need to stop acting like they’re the police. And the police need to stop acting like they’re gang members. So both of them need to grow up.
In regards to the police, I think it’s about having a relationship with them, before you can even determine who to trust anyway. But working with the TSG [Territorial Support Group] for so long, a lot of them see me, in Catford and stuff, and they always say ‘Oh I see you’, so it’s nice that they acknowledge you. So I think if I was in a situation, and they were one of the officers, I would respect them. So with those police officers I know, I wouldn’t say I trust them, I would have a positive outlook. So if I was in a situation and they were involved, I would feel a bit safer. A lot of young people don’t know the officers in the area, like when I was in primary school and stuff, the PC used to come in and do little workshops and stuff, and you would know him as the local policeman. I feel like that kind of thing is a bit lost, so maybe if that was incorporated more. Not that everyone needs to be on the police’s side, but just to have that awareness, and to know that some situations might be treated differently, as well as young people knowing why they do certain things. Like a lot of things got explained to me in the sense of why they were holding that man against the wall, that he killed however many people. Little things like why they do certain things that they do. Not saying that everything they do is right, but it gives more of an understanding, ‘We stopped that man because he could have had a gun’, all this stuff. A little more insight for young people, would help with the whole trust thing. It’s all about knowledge, I think, because for me to trust you, I’ve got to know you. I think it’s the same thing in regards to the police and the community.
Trust is mutual. If you don’t trust me, why should I trust you? It has to be built up on both sides.
I think the level of confrontation could be reduced. I don’t know how, I don’t have that answer to the world. But if you’ve previously been through certain things, you might forgive, but you’ll never forget. Like, even though I haven’t got physical scars, but some of my family has. Trust takes years to build, but could be lost in a couple of seconds.
Do you think the police deliberately target particular groups for Stop and Search?
I think they do. You hear about it more, as well. You hear about it, and you see it. You would hear about a group of young black persons stopped and searched. So you hear more about, you know, a young black boy was stopped and searched, a young black boy got stabbed, a young black boy done this, a young black boy done that. So you hear about it a lot in the media.
But that’s pumped a lot by the media as well though. Cause I think it depends on the area, cause like in east London, there’s a lot of Indian boys that get stopped.
Yeah, but also I think because the police has that in mind, they hear so much about it in the media, because they hear about it so much, they think ‘We need to stop them’. So a lot of people end up getting stopped and searched for the wrong reasons. Because they feel they need to stop that group of black boys, or stop that black boy.
I’m trying to see it from both sides, yeah, and I’m trying to see that if you’re a policeman, or policewoman, and you get this description, and you know of people who have done these crimes before – not that you have to pick him up, arrest him, you don’t need to do them things – but if you’ve got that type of evidence, I can understand how they think that person might reoffend. But again, I think it’s more about how they handle that situation. Because if you’ve been given that as evidence, that’s your job to look for that.
Do they deliberately target people? Yes. Why? They’re told to. When they stop you, they’re like, ‘We’re looking for a black guy, wearing black bottoms, and a black tracksuit’. And you’re walking around in a grey tracksuit, a white hat, you get me? But we get stopped.
How does it feel, as a young person, to be stopped and searched?
If I just pull one of my experiences out of a hat, in Plumstead, this was on the main road, and my friend came across the road riding a bike. And as soon as he came across the road and he saw me, a police car came, a riot van. I don’t know why a riot van for two people. And all I see is a white guy going ‘You! Stay there!’ Like, we were both jamming on the corner, innit, it’s not like we were gonna go anywhere. Next thing you know, he comes over. He’s like, ‘There’s been a lot of young guys on bikes, distributing weed.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, you smell of weed.’ But the thing about it is, my auntie gave me this aftershave for my birthday. And I always told myself I would never use it! But the first time I used it I got stopped and searched and told I smelled like I have weed on me. And they were like ‘Oh, we need to search you.’ And I was like some goldfish, I didn’t know nothing about stop and search. So I said ‘Alright’. So they patted me down, and then they were like, ‘Oh, can you come into the van?’ I went into the van. They were like, ‘Can you lower your trousers please?’ And I was like [pulls a face of disbelief]. And I had a tracksuit bottom on under my jeans, but I’m thinking, ‘Lower my trousers? That don’t really sound right coming from a police officer, in a main road, in a riot van’. So I lowered it to about there. And he’s like, ‘Have you got anything in your shoes? Take them off.’ So I took them off, you know, I was cooperating with everything. And then I was fixing myself, another one comes out of nowhere, the same bald one who said ‘You! Stay there!’, comes in from the side door and says ‘Is he giving trouble?’ and I was like, ‘No. Can you leave me alone?’ And if the woman hadn’t come in, I think I would have gone to prison. Cause she comes in, like, ‘Oh, leave him alone, he’s got nothing on him’. And then they just let me out. They didn’t even give me a slip or nothing. So I was thinking, OK, that’s it. You just normally get stopped, kicked out and you go about your business. And I told my mum, she didn’t believe me. I said I ain’t using that spray again [laughter]. I gave it to my brother [laughter].
I’ve been stopped and searched twice. Once I just got stopped, the other time it was two females. But it does actually make you feel like a criminal. When I get stopped and searched I’m thinking, ‘You’re feeling my trousers, man! You’re feeling my pockets, you don’t need to do that!’ So I actually feel like a criminal. And I actually didn’t know this, but every time a police officer stop and search someone, they have to give a slip. But they always lie and say it takes half an hour, [all agree] ‘It’s gonna take half an hour for me to fill out this slip, do you still want it?’ And most kids are like, ‘I don’t want it.’ But every time they fill out a slip it goes on their record to how many people they’ve stopped and searched, how many black people they’ve stopped and searched. But I never knew that. So maybe that’s why they don’t want to give out the slips. Maybe a police officer could be racist, and you could find how many black people, how many Asians, and you could find that out.
It’s interesting to hear everyone’s different experiences, cause I’ve been stopped four times in my life, and I’ve only been searched once. But I thought about why they stopped me, and I think we need to realise that our culture is a lot to do with it. Our stereotype is our culture, if that makes sense? That whole thing about hoodies, and the way we dress, and the way we act, the way we talk. I think that’s what gets misinterpreted. But this one time, I was walking down my road, and they pulled up, drove up on the pavement to stop me. And they were like ‘We’re just looking for a girl who’s just beat up her mum, round the corner, and it fits your description, tell me your name, have you got ID?’ And I thought, the only way I would have wanted to argue was if I knew I had done something wrong. But I thought there’s no point in me arguing with them. And I think that’s where a lot of people go wrong, cause automatically they don’t like the police, and even if they haven’t done nothing wrong they’ll respond in an anti-police way. But some of them are very hard work.
The thing about stop and search, is that a lot of it is in public. And say your auntie, or someone close to you, sees that, you haven’t done nothing, and they go and tell your mum. It just makes you look bad. And you don’t want your mum to be worrying about it, she’s gonna think you’re hanging around with the wrong crowd, and you haven’t done nothing. It’s embarrassing, as well, everybody’s gonna think ‘Oh, he’s done something bad’.
In your experience, do officers adequately explain to young people why a Stop and Search is necessary?
There’s only been one time out of all the times I’ve been stopped and searched that they actually explain themselves right. And one thing I realised about when they stop and search you, even though they’re the ones who issue the Go Wisely information packs, yeah, they don’t want to issue it! The government told them to issue it! So I got stopped, and these were people from north London, that got sent all the way down to south east London to do a stop and search, to see if anyone was carrying knives. I saw them, I walked past them, and they clocked that I was watching. So I went to the shop, and because I saw this boy getting stopped I decided to walk past and see if I can hear what they were stopping him for, innit? And he was like, ‘Excuse me!’ And I was like, ‘Damn’ [laughter]. And he was like, ‘We’re stopping and searching all youths, to see if they’ve got knives and this and that on them’. So basically, he didn’t really say what he was stopping me for, he was like ‘Come, I need to search you’. So I knew what the Go Wisely stood for, and I asked him the questions, he was like, ‘What? What do you mean Go Wisely?’ I was like, ‘That’s how you lot run your stop and searches, right? Grounds, all of that. And can I have your badge number’. He was like, ‘What?’ And I was like, ‘What section are you stopping me on?’ And he was like, ‘Ehm … [pretending to talk to his colleague] Excuse me!?’ And I was like, ‘You wanted to search me, right? Have you got that form? Did you give one to him?’ And he was like ‘No.’ And I was like ‘OK, well I want mine.’ And that’s the only time it actually went well, cause I had to be the one who like ‘Yeah, you need to tell me this, and you have to give me that’.
How can the quality of communication between the police and young people be improved?
Some people bear grudges, but some people just forget them. Like when I got stopped last year – this was when I was on bail for my case – and I was jamming inside of Morley’s, in a food shop, and a bunch of Catford girls came into the Morley’s. There was only like five or six of them. Five minutes later, two riot vans and two squad cars basically blocked off the road, came up in there and said ‘Oh, we heard that one of you has got a gun’. A gun, in a food shop, what are we gonna do, rob their chicken or something? And they’re supposed to have a one-to-one with you, you know ‘Oh we’re stopping you because of this’. [in a loud voice] ‘Uhm, I think this one’s got it! Uhm, can you check him for the gun please?! Look, he’s got a foot tag!’ That’s when the pastor’s wife walked past! That week when I went to church … no way! [laughter] But the thing about it, they make it so hard for you. Imagine if they did arrest me, it would have gone on my case as well. And the thing is, no one in that chicken shop had a gun on them. And within ten, fifteen minutes they were gone. I didn’t get no slip, no nothing. They said ‘You can pick it up from the police station’.
That gets on my nerves!
If I got £20 for every time for every time a police officer told me that, I could pay for my college fee! [laughter]
They think that they feel like they’re doing their role, but they’re missing a lot of bits. I think they’re surprised most of the time when we know the law. And I think it should be a thing where, if you can tell that we know it, you might as well tell the answers. Cause we know it, so there’s no point in lying. We will go back to your police station, and we will question you.
What is the role of a youth project like Second Wave?
Like how Second Wave do all that outreach and that, talking to the police. Young people like us with bad experience of the police, it’s good for them to hear it. And I’m sure we speak for the majority, it’s like the link. There needs to be a time where young people sit down with the police. And I think if Second Wave was bigger, it would be much better. Or if what we do here, the outreach, was taken to other places, I think that would really work. I think that would help communication.
I think I’d be a criminal if it wasn’t for outreach. I ain’t gonna lie. Because my thoughts about police before, it only changed once I started coming to outreach.
Yeah, when you get a chance to speak to them. More insight.
Second Wave has given young people their power as well. Police have already got that empowerment, young people wouldn’t have that. So Second Wave is kind of helping to give us that power as well. Especially having a workshop where we’re leading, and they have to follow us.
I still despise the police, but being at Second Wave has taught me how to bite my tongue and control my anger, control my fuse. So it is really good. And I think Second Wave don’t get as much credit, or as much press … if someone does get injured, they report on the negative, they don’t focus on the positive, and they don’t give Second Wave enough credit. Everyone always says ‘Young people and police should work alongside and help each other’. But when someone is doing that, they wanna forget about it.
Yeah, they should give the credit. Cause it’s young people like us that are getting stopped and searched and this and that, but then again come to a good place like Second Wave, and we can take the lead of our own workshop. And it’s a chance for them to see that even though we get stopped and searched, there is good in us. And I think that is a good thing, cause most of the time they just think, ‘Oh, cause you get stopped and searched, you don’t do anything with your life, you have no motivation’. And I think Second Wave also gives us a voice.
I started Second Wave when I was 13, and I ain’t gonna lie, I was reckless, I did roll with a couple of wrong people and nearly got involved in different situations, but Second Wave just makes you think and makes you realise that there’s so much more you can do with yourself. There’s more people who respect you for you. On the street, yeah, you got to do something to get up there. And if you wanna stay up there, you got to carry on, carry on, carry on. But Second Wave, you don’t have to do anything. Just be yourself. You don’t get judged.
Is an increased use of Stop and Search the best way to tackle knife crime?
Hell no. The more you stop people, the more they’re going to get aggravated. You know, energy flows where attention goes. So increasing stop and search, that won’t stop it, that will just make it happen. If it ain’t happening already, if they ain’t carrying a knife already, you stopping and searching them a multiple of times, one day you might say ‘Excuse me, can you…’ boom! And that’s you gone. Why? Cause you stopped that person five times already within the last three days, asking them the same question, they’re gonna get sick of your voice. And they’re gonna be sick of your van rolling up to them, especially if they’re going home to their mum, or they’re going to pick up their little brother, or if they’re just trying to live a normal life. So you know, ‘This guy is getting on my nerves, if he wants to find something I will show him something’. That’s the mentality of some of the youth are nowadays. It’s like your parents when they’re annoying you, even if you’ve got respect for them, sometimes your anger takes over and you do things or say some things that you don’t mean to. That’s what can happen on the streets. The more they stop you, the more you’re gonna think to yourself, ‘Oh, they’re getting on my nerves, I need to do something about it’. And why would you have done it? Because they were pushing you. But they wouldn’t see it in that way.
I think it’s the other way, cause sometimes I’ve thought, ‘Imagine if I did carry a knife’. You know, when I got stopped and searched, I thought ‘Imagine if I did have a knife’. I would have been in jail. So it does make you think, so I thought, ‘There’s no way I’ll carry a knife, there’s no point, it’s not worth it’. So stop and search can be a good thing. It makes you think about the repercussions about it. If your friend got stopped and searched with a knife, that might stop you carrying a knife. I think that helps.
Could any other methods be more effective in tackling knife crime?
Last year, yeah, and the year before, obviously there was bare knife crime, innit?
And gun crime.
Yeah. Both. But now, they don’t show it as much. Even though you know in yourself, bare people are getting stabbed, but…
Isn’t it a lot to do with media? Cause the person who triggered it off was so young, like twelve or something, thirteen, when he died. Then journalists and stuff started clocking on how much people were actually getting stabbed. A lot of the time the media does escalate a lot of this stuff. Yeah, the rate is up, but it’s been high for a long time. A lot of the time it’s the media that’s pumping it out there. And it’s probably increasing knife crime even more, cause it’s all these young people thinking ‘I might get stabbed!’ And it’s probably making them carry a knife. So I think it’s gone past what precautions police can do, and it’s gone into how these young people are being raised, what their culture is, and what’s being pumped into their head all the time.
I think, if we were informed more, from the police and from the British Crime Survey, it wouldn’t shock us so much. Cause everyone watches TV, you know? But they keep it in their little group, and not telling us everything. So when it comes on TV, we’re like ‘Oh, it must have been bad, for it to be on TV!’
Yeah, and with police as well, when something happens in your area, obviously you wanna know cause it’s your area, and they’re not allowed to tell you nothing. But it could be even my road blocked off and I can’t get to my house, ‘So what’s happened?’ ‘Oh, I can’t tell you’. But I live on the road, I wanna know if there’s a mass murderer or whatever. It’s about being able to communicate knowledge.
Should young people be encouraged to play a more active role in creating safer neighbourhoods?
Even though I’ve been here at Second Wave, all the little boys, the people I knew growing up in Pepys [Pepys Estate, Deptford, London SE8] when they do stuff I actually stop them, like ‘Why did you do that?’ It makes me think, ‘What’s the point?’ So coming from Second Wave, it’s made me change my views on police. It’s made me more mature, it’s made me realise, ‘You are within the community, even though you might commit crime. I’ve committed crimes, but then I had forgotten about how it would affect my community. And at Second Wave they do make you see the other side.