The newly appointed Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, says he wants to cut his officers' use of random stop-and-search powers by half. Rightly so. It can only be hoped that other police forces around the country will follow the Met's lead.
There are three basic problems with stop and search. The most glaring is that, used randomly, it is highly inefficient: barely one in 10 searches results in an arrest, and in some areas the rate drops as low as 2 per cent. Even so, police use of the power has spiralled out of control. There were more than 50,000 searches last year in London alone.
Most pernicious of all is the effect on community relations as disproportionate targeting of ethnic groups inflames racial tensions and entrenches a destructive "them and us" mentality in police and citizens alike.
The statistics are unequivocal. Black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts, Asian people twice as likely. No amount of rationalisation can either make such obvious discrimination acceptable, or dispel the bad feeling it causes. Stop and search not only excerbates ethnic friction, but it also provides ammunition to those who would foster such grievances for their own ends.
Neither should the corrosive effect of antagonism between the police and local communities be downplayed. It would, of course, be simplistic to blame last August's riots on a single cause. But the fact that a high proportion of participants blamed recurrent, low-level humiliation at the hands of the police cannot be ignored either. The sad thing is the extent to which history has repeated itself. The precursor to current stop-and-search laws – the hated "sus" laws – were repealed after race riots in the early 1980s similarly shone a spotlight on police targeting of young black men.
It may be that there is an effective role for targeted stop and search, in combating rising levels of knife crime, for example. But the powers must be more closely controlled and more intelligently applied. Mr Hogan-Howe is to be applauded for taking the initiative.
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