Race Matters

Rethinking Stop and Search - changing 'ways of thinking' about marginalised youth

When the Home Secretary, Theresa May speaking in parliamentary debate in July 2013, conceded that the percentage of arrests associated with the 1 million 'stop and searches' conducted in 2011/12 were “far too low for comfort” you would be forgiven for thinking that there was about to be a wholesale review of this draconian and unjust infringement of people's liberties. What's more, if the Home Secretary went further and raised concerns surrounding the disproportionate number of black and Asian young people stopped, specifically stating they are “seven times more likely to be stopped as a white person”, you'd certainly begin to think the game's up for the use of a policing practice that was first introduced nearly 200 years ago.

Well, think again!

The illegitimacy of the police's use of the controversial 'stop and search' tactic was brought into stark relief recently as the human rights organisation Liberty failed in their appeal to overturn a High Court decision which concluded that the Metropolitan Police's use of section 60 (1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act) was not unlawful. Liberty had asserted that the use of such police powers were "intrinsically discriminatory" citing the case of Ann Juliette Roberts, a 38-year-old African-Caribbean woman, who was 'handcuffed and restrained on the ground by officers'.

In light of this High Court decision, and the strong words expressed by the Home Secretary you are left to ponder: How low can British justice really go?

The statistical low-down on 'stop and search'

Theresa May's speech was referring to the latest Home Office data which states that in 2011/12 the police stopped and searched over 1.1 million people and/or vehicles under Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), which indicates a 7% reduction than in 2010/11. Moreover, they made 46,961 section 60 stops and searches, which require “no grounds of suspicion”, as in the case of Ann Juliette Roberts, and allow for the suspension of civil liberties in exceptional circumstances.

Now, whilst the data shows a decline in the use of 'stop and search' powers, concerns about its effectiveness as a means of policing our streets still remain. The reason for the Home Secretary concerns are clear, because of the 46,961 section 60 searches conducted in 2011/12 (the most draconian) only 2.8% (1,094) resulted in an arrest. More striking and probably distressing is the detection rate, for when you consider how many actually resulted in the detection of weapons, you are down to a measly 0.38% (182) of the searches conducted. So with almost 47,000 section 60 'stop and searches' resulting in the arrest of just over 1,000 people (less than 3% success rate) you have to question the use of such a measure, and wonder if any other public service would be allowed to continue a practice with such a poor outcomes, even before you'd consider the the denial of people's human rights.

Concerns about trust in police and and ethnic profiling

There is also strong evidence to suggest that the policy of 'stop and search' is ethnically-biased, and may involve ethnic-profiling. According to the The Guardian during 2009/10 'black people were stopped 23.5 times more frequently than white people, and Asian people 4.5 times more frequently'. The data certainly highlights the disproportionate and possible discriminatory effect of the policing tactic which is certainly affecting the concept of ‘policing by consent’, to the extent that in certain parts of the country the idea of recognising police officers as a part of a wider community safety service is under major threat.

The civil rights group Liberty who supported the appeal firmly believes that Section 60 'which allows for stop and search without suspicion it is unlawful' and cites recent police statistics for England and Wales which indicate that whilst there are over one million stop and searches conducted each year, only 9% resulted in an arrest. The Home Secretary, Theresa May speaking in July 2013 conceded that these 'percentages are far too low for comfort' and went on to raise concerns surrounding the disproportion of black and Asian people stopped, stating that people from such community groups are seven times more likely to be stopped as a white person.

As similar point echoed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission report which raises concerns about the 'frequency, race profile and outcomes of s.60 stop and searches published by the Ministry of Justice’ and emphasises the fact that such data shows a ‘high disproportion of black and Asian communities amongst those stopped and searched'.

Marginalised youth, institutional racism and surveillance

Yet despite such overwhelming statistical evidence showing its ineffectiveness as a policing tool, as well as the disproportionate impact on black and minority communities, the practice of 'stop and search' remains as a key device in the policing of disadvantaged communities.

Criminologist John Muncie (2009) notes that successive UK governments have not only resisted children’s rights campaigners’ demand that the age of criminal responsibility be raised, but have chosen instead to introduce a range of civil powers and statutory orders: such as curfews, child safety orders, dispersal orders  and ASBOs. These have largely been targeted at, or have been used disproportionately against, under 18 year olds, including in some cases those below the age of 10. In 2008, when Jack Straw, former Secretary of State for Justice was asked what he might do to reduce the trend of demonising children and young people, his response was unequivocal: ‘these are not children; they are often large unpleasant thugs’ (Hansard, 10 June 2008, cited in Muncie 2009).

The use of 'stop and search' policing has always been a controversial issue, especially for those categorised as the 'marginalised' or 'disaffected' members of society, i.e. young, black and living in an disadvantaged neighbourhood. For despite successive government sub committees, ACPO, and senior police officers regularly claiming that 'stop and search' is an effective means in the battle against street crime; or the 'war on terror', there is no escaping from the official government statistics on the use of 'stop and search', as the Home Secretary, Teresa May has conceded are having a disproportionate impact on the poor and marginalised sectors of society.

So just how low can British justice go?

If you listen to the views of young people, the target group of these draconian measures, it is clear that confidence in the police is at rock bottom, and such sentiment is echoed in the London Youth's submission to the 2011 Riots Panel which unequivocally states that 'sadly, the police’s trust and credibility among young people in areas affected remains close to zero’.

Recent consultations undertaken by the Runnymede Trust has identified a serious lack of trust in the police among young people. As one young person reported:

“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.”

and similarly raised concerns about the type of policing:

"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”.

And most alarmingly lessons failed to be learned, as such sentiments are not new, for instance the Guardian/LSE study of the August 2011 riots identified that the focus of much resentment came from the police use of ‘stop and search’. Furthermore, concerns over the use of 'stop and search' were also highlighted in the 1999 MacPherson Inquiry, where it was cited as a key factor affecting the confidence in the police during the investigation of the death of Stephen Lawrence. The report went on to condemn the Metropolitan Police as “institutionally racist”. Also, the Cantle Report after the 2001 Oldham, Rochdale and Bradford 'race' riots cited concerns from both communities about the lack of effective policing, and the effect that 'stop and searches' had on the lack of trust in the police.

Yet, despite the numerous public funded inquiries into social unrest and inner-city disturbances over the last three decades, and despite the government's own statistical data which illustrates the inadequacy of such devices as a means of effective policing, these unjust practices continue.

However, history tells us that there is a possibility that the ‘silent majority’ may awaken to the damage caused to the integrity of British justice and policing. There was a brief period in the 1980s when we witnessed a sea change in the 'way of thinking' about policing. It was a period when the concerns of young people and inner-city communities were seriously listened to. That period was immediately after the 1980s disturbances in Brixton, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham and elsewhere. For a brief period the first phase of 'stop and search' came to an end. It was as a result of the 1981 Lord Scarman inquiry recognised that 'stop and search' policing was  a significant contributory factor that led to the urban unrest and resentment.

But such thinking was short-lived, for despite the concerns about ethnic-profiling or social unrest, and no matter how low policing is regarded in certain parts of the country, the concerns over managing 'problem youth', are still condoned by the 'law-abiding' majority which led to the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), that re-introduced 'stop and search' on the grounds of 'reasonable suspicion'; and later these were revised to provide increased 'temporary powers' under section 60 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, that required no grounds of 'reasonable suspicion'.

Change the 'way of thinking' about disadvantaged and marginalised communities.

The only justification for the continued political tolerance of the use of this policing device is the recognition that there is a continued acceptance by the majority of the 'law-abiding' population. There are two reasons for this acceptance, firstly, is the idea of 'othering', whereby this unfair and discriminatory practice is acceptable because such conduct on 'others' does not affect them, or interfere with their civil liberties and freedoms; and secondly, it fits into the 'way of thinking' about immigrant communities, the minority ethnic population as well as 'problem youth' and 'troubled communities', i.e. those deemed to be a threat or risk to society. These 'others', the so called criminally inclined, disadvantaged, and social excluded groups for whom such policing devices and techniques are seen as a necessary evil are having their rights infringed in the name of everyone.

As a result, these unjust policing tactics are condoned and tolerated, and such 'ways of thinking' allows the second wave of 'stop and search' to continue, because it is conceived as a legitimate means of controlling the conduct of 'others', and is an acceptable form of managing the behaviour of those ‘other’ members of society.

How much lower can we go?

The question is 'how lower can we go?', or to put it another way: What is the breaking point before the public at large recognises, and accepts that change is necessary? Is the section 60 detection rate of less 3% of the 47,000 people stopped acceptable? What about the measly 0.38% rate for arrest for the detection of serious weapons? Think of those experiencing the impact of ethnic-profiling, those who are disproportionately stopped, and the specific safety concerns of young people growing up in inner city areas today. Now go further, think about the ineffectiveness and misery caused by such an approach to policing. Think as well what justice really means to British citizens, about the protestations from human rights campaigners, such as Liberty,  and the impact it is having on ordinary people such as Ann Juliette Roberts and others.

It is a law that is clearly not working, and has a dramatic affect on disadvantaged communities and is clearly ripe for a change. Remember that history tells us that it has not always been this way. As in the 1980s, we briefly saw a change in the 'ways of thinking' about policing inner cities. So, maybe justice has reached its lowest point or even “rock bottom” as some suggest. It is certainly time for a new 'way of thinking' about this issue, and time for an end to the second wave of 'stop and search' practice in the UK.

Sean Murphy is a Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Work at Teesside University. This article was first published on Youth Think.

Image Credit: Flickr/Andy Armstrong/Creative Commons
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