Stopped 60 times, never arrested

The police are eight times more likely to stop a black man than a white. Just ask Oluwa. By Sebastian Naidoo
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The Independent Culture
HIS FIRST time was at the age of 15. By his late teens he'd lost track of how many prickly encounters he'd had. Ten years later he reckons it happens about once a month. And now he hardly breaks out in a sweat.

"There's never been a reason for me to run into the police," says 27- year-old Oluwa Kubweza from behind the wheel of his black Vitara jeep. "I've never been arrested or taken into custody. My cars have always been legal. I've got to the stage where I say as little as possible. I know the score. I give them my details, and ask for the producer," he says.

Mr Kubweza has been stopped more than 60 times over the past six years. He is a physics graduate and is currently working as a sales executive for a Surrey advertising company. He is also a regular at his local police station in Tottenham, north London, where he goes to "produce" his driving licence and insurance documents when asked.

"I try to rationalise their behaviour. I've asked several times whether they're stopping me because I'm black. They say they're just doing routine checks," he says. "Once when I asked, we ended up in verbal abuse. He swore at me, saying all blacks are muggers."

On another occasion, a gun was wielded over him by a plain-clothes officer who had pursued him along a London artery in a high-speed chase on his way home from a night-shift at work.

At times, Mr Kubweza threads through side streets to avoid patrolled areas. When security was tightened after bomb blasts in the City and Docklands areas of London, he was persistently stopped and searched at a string of checkpoints.

Black people are up to eight times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched, according to a recent analysis of Home Office data by Statewatch, an independent police monitor. The first detailed ethnic breakdown of police stops and searches across England and Wales showed over 100 stops and searches of black people per 1000 of the local black population in Cleveland, Dyfed Powys, Merseyside and the Met. There were less than 50 stops and searches of white people per 1,000 in the same areas.

A Home Office report published a few weeks ago shows that a disproportionate number of arrests of black people are dropped due to weak evidence. It explains: "The police sometimes view members of ethnic minority groups and black people in particular as `problematic'."

Maurice McLeod, a 29-year-old black journalist, kept a meticulous record of his stop and search encounters. They totalled 31 during the first three months of 1995, usually on the same west London route. He was never arrested.

Police officers can carry out a stop and search only if they have reasonable grounds for suspicion. They are obliged by law to fill out an incident form and tell a suspect of their right to a copy of the record.

"There is no legal reason for the stop and search of young black men in a majority of these cases," says human rights lawyer Sadiq Khan, who has dealt with about 50 cases of police misconduct stemming from stops and searches. "I have no doubt that this constitutes harassment." Mr Khan estimates that up to 80 per cent of his clients are young black men, vulnerable to wrongful arrests.

"We've plainly said we are stopping too many young black men for insufficiently good reasons," says former Lambeth Chief Inspector and borough liaison officer Alan O' Gormon. "If we can demonstrate... that we're working on it, public confidence will be greater, and [so will] the degree to which we police by consent."

Two routes are open to aggrieved people seeking a challenge against a police officer for what they believe to be abuse of power. Formal complaints - investigated by officers from a separate force under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) - offer the prospect of an officer being disciplined or criminally prosecuted. Of the 258 complaints for breaches of stop and search rules recorded by the PCA for the year until the end of last March: no officer was disciplined, 14 were "admonished".

It takes civil action for compensation against a police employer - usually a Chief Constable - to put stop and search records before a jury. Legal aid is available for the process, which can take as long as six years to complete. Court guidelines now limit damages to 50,000 pounds, awarded according to the severity of an abuse. An officer usually returns to work after a case is settled.

"What's the point of making a complaint? If I was lucky I'd get an insincere apology," says Mr Kubweza.

"Police officers freely interpret their code of conduct. I don't want a stop and search to depend on whether a particularly progressive officer is on duty," says Lee Jasper, who heads a black community group, the 1990 Trust. Making policy and practice match in this area is the job of a Home Office quango called the Specialist Support Unit, which has trained about 2,000 senior police officers in `equality objectives'.

"Our training starts from the premise that all police officers might have stereotyped perceptions that influence their behaviour [during a] stop and search," says the support unit's director and chief trainer Jerome Mack.

Trainees memorise 10 commandments guaranteed to prevent conflict during a stop and search. In particular, they learn to avoid telling suspects to shut up or stand absolutely still, calling the suspect names, showing disrespect and assuming that lack of eye contact indicates guilt.

Using role play and video to show reasonable grounds for a stop and search, the two-day cross-cultural course trains high-ranking officers how to identify suspicious behaviour in black communities. These officers are expected to pass on the skills.

But from next week, PCs on the beat in the south London borough of Lambeth will get a direct lesson from Mr Mack. They will soon be reciting the 10 commandments as part of a fresh bid by the local police community consultative group to crush "bad apples" in the station and stamp out bad attitude on the street.

Set in motion by Lord Scarman's recommendations following clashes in Brixton and Tottenham during the first half of the Eighties, and fuelled by concerns over zero tolerance tactics and the kind of policing for which the Notting Hill Carnival gained notoriety, the Lambeth consultative group has thrashed out its own peace plan.

The Community and Race Relations strategy puts local people on a committee to help steer key decisions about police recruitment, training and tackling institutionalised racism. It may become a model for other forces.

But not everyone is convinced. Mr Kubweza for one will need a bit more persuasion: "I grew up with the hassle. The longer it goes on, the more I just see the uniform. My only encounters have been negative. It's made me very anti-police. That's what experience has taught me. I can't see any way it's going to change."