Leading article: Heavy-handed policing will not make us safer

Click to follow
The Independent Online

This is disingenuous. Stopping members of the public and searching their belongings in an effort to bolster security in public places will inevitably involve a degree of racial profiling.

Police will not necessarily have intelligence to guide them, and it is naive to imagine that if decisions are left to police discretion, they will not focus more searches on young men of Asian or African appearance than on middle-aged white women. It is dishonest not to acknowledge this.

There is a need for increased security, and this will, inevitably, involve stop and search, both to prevent further attacks and to reassure the public. But this country's exper- ience of stop and search is so negative and divisive that safeguards must be applied to prevent police from using these powers for an indefinite length of time and to prevent such heavy-handed usage that they arouse real resentment.

As a policing technique, stop and search has proved to be malign in terms of community relations and almost completely ineffective in the hunt for suspected terrorists or criminals. Historically, it has achieved little beyond alienating minorities; indeed, it should be remembered that in 1981 stop and search was officially identified as one of the factors that triggered the Brixton riots.

The debate about security, particularly in the capital, is nevertheless urgent. But genuinely random checks, where all travellers, regardless of racial profile, face potential delay or inconvenience, would be preferable to traditional stop and search. This approach, which is the one introduced on the New York subway, would go some way to reassuring the travelling public without needlessly causing anger and resentment among any particular ethnic group. It might even serve to deter potential bomb-carriers from entering stations or trains.

Ultimately, our fight against terrorism depends partly on the willingness of minorities to co-operate with police. Heavy-handed police tactics that risk demonising and alienating certain groups are both dangerous and counterproductive. There probably needs to be a temporary stop-and-search policy, but it should be treated with extreme caution.