Stop and search has always been controversial and the problems it presents are nothing new. In the 1970s, Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 – nicknamed ‘sus law’ – meant anyone could be stopped and searched if police officers merely suspected they might be planning to carry out a crime whilst frequenting or loitering in a public place. This power was disproportionately targeted at black men, and it still is today, eroding black communities’ trust and faith in the police.
In April 1981, the sus law was used in Brixton by police to stop and search more than 1,000 people in six days under Operation Swamp. Many young black men felt they were being unfairly targeted and over-policed. This fired up existing community tensions that would boil over into the streets, culminating in the 1981 Brixton riots.
Whether these powers were being unfairly targeted at black men was hard to prove at the time. The data was not collected. Now we have the numbers and the reality of being a young black man in the capital can be backed up with evidence.
‘Black people are currently nine-and-a-half times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people’
According to recent Home Office figures, black people are currently nine-and-a-half times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people in England and Wales.
The fact is, a policy that on the face of it should be applied to everyone equally is not. Stereotypes and prejudicial beliefs mixed with policy and power is a potent mix. An HM Inspectorate of Constabulary report found that 27 per cent of police records of stop and searches did not contain evidence of ‘reasonable grounds’. Suspicion or
‘gut feeling’ are not neutral beliefs.
‘Suspicion or ‘gut feeling’ are not neutral beliefs’
Stop and search has not even been particularly effective at reducing crime. A recent report by the College of Policing found that higher rates of stop and search had a ‘negligible’ impact on violent crime from 2004 to 2014. Similarly, a 2016 Home Office report found no evidence that the increase in weapon searches under Operation BLUNT 2 reduced crime at borough level.
Worse still, the Government recently extended and enhanced blanket stop and search powers in response to rising knife crime, apparently learning nothing from the role sus law played in stoking community tensions. The police can now challenge people without ‘reasonable suspicion’.
Research has repeatedly made clear that negative contact with the police erodes people’s trust and confidence and damages community relations. And it damages intelligence gathering efforts from communities who do not believe the police are there to serve or protect them. Black communities have long felt over-policed and under-protected.
The Government recently hosted a serious youth violence summit, but without tackling the social forces that are known to have an impact on crime – poverty, inequality and mental health – it is unlikely we’ll see a reduction in violence. We need solutions that work, not just placate the public or feign ‘tough’ action. Lives depend on it.