Arifa Akbar: Stopped, searched and humiliated

It was the first time I 'd been stopped in this way, but it was enough to make me feel defensive
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I was rushing to catch my train at Canary Wharf station a few days ago when three police officers crowded round me and explained I was being stopped and searched under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act.

As one took my personal details, another emptied my rucksack, reading business cards and staring at the contents of my lunchbox as the third watched in the wings. When they had reassured themselves that my bag was free of explosives and incriminating literature, they asked me if I would be so kind as to tick a box on their form to list my ethnicity, for administrative purposes. Surely, I thought, they could have filled it in themselves. Hadn't they mentally ticked the boxes when they picked me out from the crowd as a potentially dangerous member of society? I found it hard to accept, as they explained, that the apparently "unusual sight of a woman carrying a rucksack" had raised their suspicions.

While the Metropolitan Police denies that ethnic profiling dictates the hidden criteria of such searches, statistics suggests otherwise. The number of Asian and black people stopped and searched in London by police using anti-terrorism powers increased more than 12-fold after the July 7 bombings. According to Metropolitan Police figures, 2,405 Asian and black people were stopped in the two months after the attacks, compared with 196 last year. The increase is more than twice the rise recorded by the Met for white people stopped in the same period .

In the same week that I was stopped, Scotland Yard's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of the Met's Anti-Terrorist Branch, defended Section 44 powers, claiming they were an essential tool for the police. So, if they are working so well, how many have been arrested and charged as a result? A government report shows that of the 10,941 pedestrians searched under Section 44 last year, only 177 were arrested. These latest statistics represent a record use of the powers since the Act came into force six years ago.

I cannot see how my search had left society much safer. Last month, the Home Office revealed that people were being stopped at the rate of nearly 100 a day under the powers. But how rigorous a deterrent are 100 searches a day in the light of the 2 million commuters on the tube?

And how can this "needle in a haystack" approach justify the expense of a significant number of police officers - some of whom are drafted in from other forces and housed in rent-free accommodation for months at a time - to enforce what is essentially a pointless exercise?

In his annual review of the Terrorism Act last year, Lord Carlile, the independent terror watchdog, said the use of Section 44 "could be cut by at least 50 per cent without significant risk to the public or detriment to policing". Many have argued that these checks are detrimental to the country's fight against terror, alienating the communities whose co-operation they need for intelligence-gathering.

Surely the Section 44 supporters must be aware of the rising levels of alienation among young Asian males - whom they deem most at risk from extremist ideologies - if they are repeatedly stopped? My episode must only have taken five minutes, and it was the first time I had been stopped in this way, but it was enough to make me feel defensive. However little the lives of the London suicide bombers resembled mine, our shared ethnicity had implicated me in the eyes of these officers, or so I felt.

I was so outraged I recounted the event to my mother, who responded by telling me she had been stopped by police with a group of elderly Asian women while taking the train. They were searched right down to the contents of their Tupperware boxes, as if they might be stashing ricin under the chapattis, in spite of the fact that the majority were Hindus, not Muslims.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office insisted the legislation was aimed at creating a "hostile environment for would-be terrorists to operate in". But for thousands of law-abiding, well-integrated metropolitan Asians, Section 44 has created the hostile environment in which their daily lives are interrupted by people who remind them of the potential threat their colour represents.

A Met spokesman insisted that it was not necessarily the individual who was under suspicion, but that searches were undertaken for the greater good of "deterring and disrupting terrorist activity". So if I was never under suspicion in the first place, were searches like mine used to create the illusion that the threat was under control? If this "high-visibility" patrolling is the Government's idea of effective PR to reassure commuters who witnessed my humiliation, then it's a rather cheap trick.

a.akbar@independent.co.uk

Comments