From an early age it was clear to me that my skin colour would be a source of anxiety and intimidation to some. Stop and search and its disproportionate use serves as a poignant illustration of the reality faced by many black men. We are persistently treated as objects of suspicion, irredeemably tainted by societal perception of our skin colour. Consequently, it should not come as a surprise to you that the prospect of increased stop and search terrifies me, and many others in my community.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge for the proper and sensible use of stop and search is hollow. The numbers do not lie. In the UK, black people are ten times as likely to be stopped and searched than white people although the rate at which prohibited items are found is broadly similar across all ethnicities. Years ago, the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry recognised this prevailing injustice by concluding that the police service was institutionally racist, somewhat validating the common experience of black men in Britain. How can the current government justify the expansion of police powers knowing the findings of this report and the fallibility of the system?
While I appreciate the government’s direct intention is not to persecute men of colour but to assuage the rising levels of youth violence, the result remains the same. Racism. When Sir William Macpherson wrote in the Lawrence Inquiry that the Metropolitan Police were institutionally racist, he did not mean that your average bobby-on-the-beat was maliciously pursuing people of colour, but that the organisation as a whole was producing results that disadvantaged minority ethnic people. In the case of Stephen Lawrence, as well as in many cases of stop and search, the police’s “unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtfulness and racist stereotyping” subverted justice and produced discriminatory outcomes. In short, the rhetoric pushed by Johnson and other proponents of increased “responsible” stop and search should be regarded simply as meaningless platitudes.
More generally, however, increased stop and search raises issues surrounding civil liberties. It is clear that the government is intent on reducing violent crime, but the question is at what cost? Do we want to live in a society wherein your liberty and freedom can be suspended at a moment’s notice? Well, this is already reality for many people, particularly men of colour, who regularly have their freedom swept aside in the name of security.
While the government’s sentiments are clear, the evidence to suggest their policy would work is not. They claim “common sense” logic. The Merseyside Police Chief Constable Andy Cooke claimed “because there are less police officers, and because they [criminals] know they’re [police officers] more reluctant to engage in stop-search, criminals feel safe carrying knives and guns around." Cooke’s statement misunderstands the complexity of violent crime and this hypothesis is completely contradicted by statistics. In 2018/19, the use of Section 60 (a power that allows police officers to stop and search people without reasonable grounds) multiplied, yet the proportion of Section 60 searches that resulted in an arrest fell from 8% to 5%. The current, apparent inefficiency in stop and search reinforces the futility of the expanding police powers to conduct stop and search.
This trend suggests that the government has got its priorities wrong. Rather than increasing stop and search, they should be considering reducing this wasteful practice. Instead, they should follow the lead of Scotland where they introduced a Violence Reduction Unit to tackle Glasgow’s reputation as the murder capital of western Europe. This approach, whereby violence was treated as a public health problem, saw the murder rate in the city decline by almost 60% over the last decade.
Finally, it is clear that increasing stop and search does not work. When the use of the power peaked in the year 2008 at 1.5 million, it was found to have contributed to a breakdown in relations between police and communities. Hence, it was reduced in the wake of the London riots. Thus, I urge the current government to learn from the past and recognise that stop and search is not the answer to the problems we currently face. While it is good for campaign slogans, it does nothing to help this country.
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