The police’s current approach to stop and search is hurting but not working, writes Habib Kadiri, research and policy manager for StopWatch UK
‘We don’t always get it right on stop and search’. At last, an honest admission from the lead on violent crime for the Metropolitan police, one might think. But rather than becoming the start of a meaningful discourse on how the police can better interact with the communities they harass, the Evening Standard article from which the remark came appears to suggest that it is a small price to pay for the efforts of the country’s largest force to protect communities of predominately Black people from themselves.
Commander Alex Murray told the paper: “The data shows that violence and murder are disproportionate and it would be wrong for us to use stop and search equally across London.”
Deputy commissioner Sir Stephen House was more forthright, telling the same outlet that “our stop and search is disproportionate because we stop and search in areas of high crime and high violence.”
However, a closer reading of the police chiefs’ position exposes the chasm between their claims and the facts.
Firstly, the police rarely find what they claim to look for in a search. A 20% to 25% find rate – ‘which is where we find weapons or illegal drugs’ – is really an admission that 75% to 80% of searches find nothing, every year.
The failure rate for arrests is worse still: Home Office records show that the annual proportion of searches ending in arrest was greater than 15% only three times so far this century. [Home Office, Police powers and procedures, England and Wales, year ending 31st March 2020 second edition, table SS_14].
The government relaxed voluntary restrictions on the use of section 60 powers earlier in the year, which permits officers to search individuals without reason in anticipation or the aftermath of violence in a designated area over a specific time period under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. They did this in order to give the police ‘the powers they need to get weapons off the streets’, but the truth is that with success rates of between 0.5% and 3% for nine of the last ten years, the police would struggle to find a more useless power for the purpose.
A full disclosure from Commander Murray over the use of the tactic would tell us that there are more searches on Black people in London for weapons than all other ethnic groups combined, yet those searches are less likely than average to find a blade or firearm on them.
Murray would also admit that the majority of searches conducted in London (as throughout England and Wales) are actually for low-level drug possession (illustrated), but that a nationwide review of stop and search practices by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) established that searches of Black people are less likely to find drugs compared with those of any other ethnic group.
Proportion of searches that were for drugs, England and Wales, 2019/20
Home Office: Police Powers and Procedures, England and Wales, year ending 31 March 2020 via HMICFRS: Disproportionate use of police powers – A spotlight on stop and search and the use of force, p. 30. Note: Greater Manchester Police is excluded as it was unable to provide complete data in 2019/20
A honest portrayal of street policing in London would mention that 70% of Met searches are ‘self-generated’ (when the officer proactively initiates the encounter as a result of what he or she sees or hears at that time) and that behind many searches, officers’ motives are driven by two implicit assumptions: one crass (where there are drugs, there are probably knives); the other racist (where there are Black people there are probably both).
Hunch-led policing would also explain why – contrary to Sir House’s assertion that the Met simply target ‘high crime and high violence’ areas that happen to have above-average concentrations of Black inhabitants – racially disproportionate searches stalk Black people’s movements across the capital, a hallmark of ethnic profiling. Our Colour of injustice report found Black people to be the only ethnic group for whom levels of stop and search were similar across “deprived areas, affluent areas, and everything in between”.
So while Commander Murray says that the police owe it to young Black people and their families to ‘do something’ about knife crime, stop and search is not the solution.
Instead, rather than match the government’s law and order rhetoric in a race towards a police state, the most vulnerable sections of our society need a political party that promises to protect them from ever more powers permitting officers to search individuals on increasingly spurious grounds. This would include the creation of effective channels for those seeking adequate redress for abuses of police power.
Marginalised communities also need a party that undercuts the excesses of over-policing by prioritising non-criminal solutions to societal issues. This would involve adopting socially beneficial anti-harm policies to recreational substance misuse problems and life-changing levels of investment towards diversionary strategies for young people at risk of violence.
As for the use of stop and search powers, any sensible analysis of the evidence should draw the following conclusions: Firstly, because the vast majority of ‘reasonable grounds’ stops conducted are pointless at best and racist at worst, they should be demoted to the level of a low-volume, targeted-but-discreet street policing power; secondly, suspicion-less searches (such as section 60) have long outlived their original purpose as a form of social control over undesirable elements of society and should be scrapped.
Until then, police bosses will continue to spread the myth that stop and search is a vital tool for fighting crime, when the truth is less that their forces ‘don’t always get it right’ and more that they too often get it wrong, with profoundly damaging consequences for society’s most vulnerable communities.
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