The scandal of stop and search

They are law-abiding pillars of the establishment - but still they are repeatedly harassed by the police because of their ethnicity
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The Independent Online

They are rock-solid pillars of the establishment: successful lawyers, police chiefs, magistrates and politicians, as well as leading figures in the arts and media. But their status in society has proved no barrier to harassment by the police for one reason - they are black.

They are rock-solid pillars of the establishment: successful lawyers, police chiefs, magistrates and politicians, as well as leading figures in the arts and media. But their status in society has proved no barrier to harassment by the police for one reason - they are black.

Leading figures in the black community have been repeatedly stopped and searched by the police, questioned about neighbourhood crimes on their doorsteps and even strip-searched by the authorities.

Recent research shows that people of Afro-Caribbean origin are 27 times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by the police while driving. The Government's crackdown on street crime, encouraged by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has led the police to double its use of stop-and-search powers from 2000-02 to 6,000 incidents, despite nagging questions about the policy's effectiveness.

But after the official inquiry into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, the checks were meant to be colour-blind. Sir William Macpherson, the chairman of the Lawrence inquiry, recommended that the Home Secretary make a record of all "stops", and note a suspect's ethnic group. But, three and a half years later, his policy has not been implemented.

Even the Home Secretary's advisers on racial issues are not immune from his controversial policy. Trevor Phillips, the Labour loyalist head of the Commission for Racial Equality, has been stopped three times while driving his Jaguar. He has now downgraded to a less flashy model.

Keith Kerr, a magistrate and adviser on race issues to the Home Secretary and Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, has been pulled over about 50 times in his car, a Mercedes with private plates.

He has been followed and left standing in the street with his belongings strewn about him after his car was ransacked by the police. The magistrate was also handcuffed and slammed to the platform floor while waiting for an Underground train by police who were looking for a black suspect. Recently Mr Kerr was pulled over on the M4 and asked whether he owned his Mercedes.

It is not only the police who are targeting innocent black Britons. The most humiliating incident for Mr Kerr involved Customs when, as a general manager for British Airways, he was stopped, questioned and strip-searched in a back room.

The police were given the power to stop and search members of the public in 1984 under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act if they had reasonable grounds to believe they were carrying a prohibited item, such as a gun or stolen property. But in practice, police officers admit the power is used far more indiscriminately.

Shahid Malik, 35, a member of Labour's national executive committee who has never committed a crime, has been stopped more than a dozen times. Once, in Edinburgh, he found himself surrounded by a phalanx of armed police.

The Metropolitan Police has been criticised by its own authority for the way it applies the policy. The Home Office has recently encouraged the use of stop and search as a way of clamping down on crime.

Even the clergy are not immune from police suspicion. The Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Rev Dr John Sentamu, was once stopped by the police. His assistant explained how the policeman was startled to discover the object of his suspicion was a senior cleric. "It was some time ago. He was Bishop of Stepney and they stopped him and they pulled him over. He was wearing a scarf and when his scarf came undone they saw his dog collar," he said. "When the officer saw that he said, 'oh dear'."

But the case of the policemen who pulled over Chief Inspector Leroy Logan, head of the Black Police Officers Association, while he was driving was more acute. A friend of the senior police officer said they "were extremely embarrassed when he flashed his badge".

The practice of stopping and searching black people, particularly those driving smart cars, has fostered deep unease in the black community. Simon Woolley, a former advertising executive who is a leading advocate of black equality in Britain as head of Operation Black Vote, was once handcuffed to his front gate by the police, who told him that there had been burglaries in his area and he fitted the description of the thief.

The police pledged to sweep away discrimination after the Macpherson report accused the force of being "institutionally racist". In the London Borough of Hackney a scheme is being piloted to make officers more accountable for stop and search. But the scheme has proved controversial in the black community. Critics say the form that officers are being asked to fill out when they stop someone is so long that only 30 per cent complete it. The statistics also look unreliable as they suggest 30 per cent of those stopped belong to an unnamed or obscure racial group.

Peter Herbert, a barrister and head of the Society of Black Lawyers who advises the Metropolitan Police, believes that more people are being stopped than before.

The Metropolitan Police said yesterday that the force did not stop people on the basis of their ethnicity. "There is no way of proving that people are targeted because they are black," said a spokesman. "It's impossible to prove that."

But Ravi Shand, president of the National Black Police Association, said random searches were causing problems and policing should be intelligence led. "Most of my colleagues who are black policemen have been stopped."


Occupation: Magistrate, adviser to David Blunkett and Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, on race issues

Times stopped: 50+

"I was on business in a suit, and a customs officer stopped me coming back to Heathrow from Kuwait. I said I was on business and I spent the weekend there. I was taken to a room and stripped naked and someone looked up my behind. I had showed them my ID card and that I was working for British Airways. He had already been searching my bags and trying to take the heel off my shoes. I objected to the search and they said they would have to take me down to the detention centre if I didn't agree.

"One time they stopped my car and told me to take everything out of the car and my boot. They told me to take everything out and left me in Earls Court with my stuff on the road. They took everything out: maps, books, toolboxes, blankets, even the boot carpet cover. I was stopped on the motorway the other night. I was driving along the M4 at 1.30am - well within the speed limit - and a police car drove up and asked me to stop. My wife wound down the window and they said open the door. He said, 'Is this your car?' When he looked in the car and saw two children asleep in the back he went away.

"I was standing on a Tube platform at Green Park. Four people pounced on me. They lifted me against the wall; they knelt on me and cuffed me. I was wrestled to the floor. Then somebody said, 'He went that way.' Somebody who was black was a suspect within the underground and they saw somebody black on a platform and that was good enough. There was no apology."


Occupation: Editor of Tense, an urban lifestyle and music magazine

Times stopped: Two

"I was furious to find the police considered running down the street in Brixton a good enough reason to stop me. I was just a few minutes from my mum's house. The first time I was stopped was in Soho. I had left my jacket in a club the night before, and went back to collect it. So I'm walking down the street wearing a jacket, with another in my arms. The police took my details, in case someone telephoned them reporting their jacket stolen.

"I actually spoke to the head of Operation Trident about the issue because it does happen so much.

"The police always have the same description of a suspect that they are looking for: 'Average height, baseball cap and sports clothes.' That description fits nearly any young person today.

"I am sure that there is some policy of stopping and searching black people, though the police would never admit to it. Even when you know that it is unjust, it does make you feel like a criminal.

"What worries me is that a lot of young kids react very badly when confronted by authority. That can be a quick way to get arrested if you do that. Armed police don't generally stop people for no good reason but it would be a scary prospect if all the police in London were armed. There is a lot of pride involved when a young boy, wearing new clothes, maybe a bit cocky, is stopped. The police ask obvious questions in a harsh manner."


Occupation: Head of Operation Black Vote, former ad executive

Times stopped: Constantly

"I was going to my car with a bag full of dirty washing and the police came up and said, 'what are you doing?' I said, 'I live here and am going to do some washing.' They said, 'do you have any ID?' When I said I will go and get some, and went to open my front door, they arrested me for potential burglary. They handcuffed me to my garden gate. They then asked my neighbour, 'do you know this man?' They said, 'yes, it's Simon, he lives next door.'

"The assumption was that I live in a leafy area, so what is a black man doing in an area like this? It is as if we do not have the right to live in leafy suburbs, that black people are all villains. Invariably, the perception is that a large proportion of black people are dodgy buggers, but the reality is that 99 per cent of them are law-abiding citizens. The consequence of this policy is deep mistrust of the police.''


Occupation: Organiser of the Mobo awards

Times stopped: Twice

"The situation is far worse for black males. I have been stopped, but a minuscule amount compared to my partner. Usually I am not stopped if I am on my own, but I am always polite. My partner gets so fed up he sometimes sounds abrupt.

"In the past it made me angry, but there has been a huge change in attitude by the police in the past couple of years. I consider myself very fortunate to have had so little attention from the police.

"My partner's been stopped everywhere, even outside our house, police wanting to know what he is doing. No one is against the police doing their job, but there does have to be a reason for stopping people. I have met Sir John Stevens [the police commissioner], he has a lot of drive and ambition, I think there will be a lot of changes with the police in the next few years.

"When people get stopped it affects them. I have seen people get depressed and unhappy. People stop wanting to go out late at night.

"My brother refused to carry his laundry home in a black binbag from my mum's house. He knew that if he walked down the street at night with a black bag, even full of clean clothes, he would attract the attention of police."


Occupation: Poet

Times stopped: A lot

"I sometimes wonder how much of my life I have wasted standing on kerbs talking to police. The last time I was stopped was two weeks ago; my white friends who I was with were outraged, but I am used to it.

"Things have changed since the 70s, when I was once stopped and slapped across the face. That wouldn't happen now. Because I am a Rasta, police do not believe that I do not smoke marijuana, when I don't even smoke cigarettes.

"Now, they see 'Doctor Zephaniah' on my licence, and the response varies between 'I love your work' and 'are you going to talk to your media friends about this, doctor?'

"Sometimes, I insist the police call me 'doctor' when they stop me. You can't stereotype the way the police will act any more."


Occupation: Member of the Labour Party's national executive committee

Times stopped: At least a dozen

"An armed response unit surrounded my car. They thought I might have been caught up in an armed robbery. It was the most frightening experience I have ever had - they came from everywhere with their sirens on. They said get out of the car and searched it. They realised they had got the wrong car, although it might have been the right-coloured driver.

"I have never had a criminal conviction in my life but I have been stopped in excess of a dozen times. Once, driving at 3 in the morning with a friend, they pulled us up and said, 'It was the way he was looking at me'. Basically it was because there was an Asian guy in the car. This does get people upset."


Occupation: Recorder in the Crown Court, adviser to the Metropolitan Police, chair of the Society of Black Lawyers

Times stopped: Once

"I am pretty distrustful of the way this [policy] is working in practice. More people are being stopped than before.

"I had a 'pull over' when I was driving a Porsche. They said a lot of people had had their Porsches stolen. Now I have 2400 Law on my number plate. I haven't been stopped since I got that.

"If I am stopped, my response is friendly but inquisitorial. I ask them under what power are you stopping me, was there reasonable suspicion and who is their senior officer?"


Occupation: President, European Multicultural Foundation, Confederation of Indian Organisations, former county cricketer

Times stopped: Twice

"I had a brand new car and a policeman stopped me and said: 'Is this your car?' I said, 'no, it is a company car, on what basis are you asking that?' So he retreated when I said you don't just stop and ask to see a person's driving licence ... what is your suspicion for it.

"My son was stopped when he was going to work and he had a bag with his lunch in it. They thought he was a burglar."

Additional reporting by Genevieve Roberts