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Runnymede Reports on Use of ‘Sus’ Law

In April 1978 Runnymede launched the report, 'Sus' – A Report on the Vagrancy Act 1824 by Research Officer Clare Demeuth. Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act – popularly referred to as 'sus', defined it an offence to be a 'suspected person loitering with intent to commit a felonious offence'. The use of 'sus' created discontent amongst black and minority ethnic communities who felt that it was used by police to target young black people.

The report examined the various arguments for and against the use of 'sus' in the prevention of street crime and concluded:

  • that in the interests of police and community relations, this was a counter-productive method of crime prevention, and that its extensive use in parts of London and one or two other major towns has merely succeeded in convincing young black people and their parents of the racial prejudice of the British police force and the inherent unfairness of the British legal system; and
  • that other charges such as attempted theft could be used to arrest the intending thief.

The report claimed that its use in certain police divisions in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, raised issues of civil liberties, of relations between young black people and the police, of police powers and methods of crime prevention, and of the application of summary justice in the magistrate's courts.

The report recommended that:

  • When the Vagrancy Act 1824 is reviewed, the charge of being a suspected person should be repealed altogether.
  • There should be an urgent reassessment of the use of 'sus' charges by plain-clothes police and of the role of the police and magistrates' courts in the prevention of street crime. Possible alternative methods of prevention should be considered such as the employment, where possible, of more uniformed constables on the beat.
  • The race relations and attitudinal training content of police training courses, particularly in-service courses should be increased.

In February 1980 the Guardian newspaper reported that Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir David McNee claimed that the 'sus' law was not being used to harass black people. He commented: 'My own interpretation of the research results is that there are some indications, and I put it no higher, that black people are over-represented in offences of robbery and other violent theft.' Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act was repealed in 1981.

Audio Interview

Herman Ouseley © Benedict HilliardLord Ouseley was created a life peer in 2001. He was previously Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality from 1993 to 2000, Chief Executive of Lambeth Borough Council and the Inner London Education Authority. Publications include The System (1981). He is currently Consultant adviser to the Metropolitan Police Service, Chair of the Caribbean Advisory Group, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, of the Football Association Race Equality Advisory Group, of the Policy Research Institute on Ageing and Ethnicity, of Kick It Out and a Council member of the Institute of Race Relations.
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