Letter: Police too powerful

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The Independent Culture
Sir: The tenfold increase in police stops and searches, and disproportionate searches of members of ethnic minorities, is shocking but not surprising ("Blacks are targeted for police searches", 8 June). Over the past four years there has been a steady increase in police powers to stop and search, without the traditional safeguards to prevent arbitrary action and unjust discrimination by the police.

These changes have slipped through barely scrutinised, challenged, or even noticed by most people other than criminal lawyers. Yet they may breach Article 5 (liberty and security of the person) and Article 8 (privacy) of the European Convention on Human Rights, shortly to be incorporated into our domestic law.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 amended the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1989 to legitimise the existing "ring of steel" stops and searches at roadblocks in the City of London. The same statute gave the police new powers to set up stop-and-search zones wherever there are reasonable grounds to believe that serious incidents of violence may take place within the area. The Knives Act 1997 empowered the police to create stop-and-search zones in any area where there are reasonable grounds to believe that some people would be carrying knives. These grounds are so broad that in theory they could include, for example, most football matches and many metropolitan areas for much of the time. Following the authorisation of a stop-and-search zone, police officers can search anyone, without needing a reason.

Changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act Code of Practice C, also in 1997, mean that the police can now search anyone they reasonably believe to be a member of a gang, or even their associates. This would enable a police officer to search an individual by reason of what is known generally about the company he or she keeps. It thus carries the test of reasonable suspicion into the realm of speculation.

Drastic changes are needed in the police culture which renders some people far more likely than others to be the target of suspicion just because of their racial or cultural identity. It is an absolutely fundamental aspect of our civil liberties that police officers should only be able to arrest, detain or search us if they have some objectively testable suspicion about a particular person for particular reasons. Without this protection, police officers are not subject to the rule of law, they are the law.