Leading Article: Stop these searches until it's proven the police aren't racist

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AS PART of a programme initiated at seven sites across the capital, the Metropolitan Police has sought to establish ways to improve the operation of the stop-and-search policy, removing potential bias. Not a day too soon. After years of deep-rooted racism, it took the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the inquiry into his death to reach the understanding that something had to change. The presumption of guilt until proved innocent was ingrained in stop and search. Only now has that link been partly broken.

A report published yesterday boasts that the arrest rate after stop and search rose by more than half in the first year of the project, from 11 to 18 per cent, mostly for possession of drugs or stolen property. But even that cannot be described as an unqualified success. It leaves 82 per cent stopped without any effect - except irritation for the person stopped, whose face is still too likely to be black.

In short, the whole system still needs a shake-up. The assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Denis O'Connor, has talked of stop-and-search powers as an "essential tool for community safety". In practice, those powers have been a key reason for distrust of the police among ethnic minorities. And such distrust can easily explode.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, talked of "uncomfortable truths" revealed by the Macpherson report on the Stephen Lawrence case, including institutional racism at the heart of the Establishment. Even now, blacks are five times more likely to be stopped by the police than whites. That is a ludicrous and unacceptable state of affairs.

The researchers of the pilot project blame demographics for the obvious imbalance, pointing out that blacks and Asians are in a majority in four of the seven sites where the scheme was implemented. It is clear, however, that stop and search has disproportionately affected the lives of blacks and has thus played a significant role in damaging community relations.

The Macpherson report called for stop-and-search procedures to be more "appropriate and professional". Given the enormous distrust that the powers still engender, we should perhaps go further and put stop and search to one side until mutual trust has been achieved.

Defenders of stop and search complain that the Macpherson report has indirectly led to an increase in street crime. According to this version, the reduction in stop and search has left police powerless to do their work. This is a dangerously upside-down perception of events, which indicates that the lessons of Stephen Lawrence's murder have still not been learnt. No amount of statistical fudge can conceal the bitter truth - that distrust and resentment still run deep. Only when we have begun to change that reality does a colour-blind stop-and-search policy become a just and realistic option.