If stop and search is the barometer for how the police force has changed, then we should all be worried

It is a crude and blunt intervention that is as inefficient as it is prejudiced

Ian Hamilton
Tuesday 06 October 2020 09:27 BST
Athlete Bianca Williams to sue Met because of 'racist' stop and search incident

A succession of home secretaries have tinkered with the rules surrounding police’s powers to stop and search individuals. Last year Priti Patel, the current home secretary, justified relaxing the rules in an attempt to curb knife crime. 

The daily reports of stabbings suggest this has been ineffective. Even former prime minister Theresa May has publicly criticised the move, highlighting the injustice of the way stop and search is used disproportionately on the black community.

The data is clear: around 30 per cent of all young black men in London have been subjected to this police intervention. The ‘no smoke without fire’ theory doesn’t stand up, as only one in five of these searches results in any further action. 

Stop and search is a crude and blunt intervention that is as inefficient as it is prejudiced – highlighted in recent high-profile cases.

But what of those being stopped who don’t have a media or celebrity profile? They are left to advocate for themselves in a system that is loaded against them – something the criminal lawyer Michael Herford is all too familiar with as he has been subject to stop and search on numerous occasions. In partnership with law firm Legal Lifelines, he has set up an app that allows users to instantly trigger a video recording via their phone when being stopped and searched. The video is then uploaded to the cloud, ensuring the footage is available if the phone is damaged or confiscated.

This simple but clever innovation will provide some much-needed balancing of power between police and citizens – even if it also depressingly shows that we have reached a new low where citizens need to be prepared to provide their own evidence of an invasive police action to ensure their version of events is heard. Police officers, like most of us, behave differently when being recorded, and we can’t always trust the police to obtain footage. The police carry body cams but these aren’t always switched on or can be difficult for a defence team to get hold of.  

As with so many aspects of policing, it is the way officers interpret and carry out their role that has the greatest impact on an individual and their communities. Police officers have a degree of discretion when carrying out stop and search: they decide how public the event will be, the tone of the instruction and how much respect is given to the innocent until proven guilty. Yet the data suggests guilt is the exception rather than the rule. For many on the receiving end it can feel the other way around.  

Rules and guidance are important in relation to stop and search powers, but they play second fiddle to attitudes and beliefs. It has been two decades since the Macpherson Report found that the police force was “institutionally racist”. If stop and search is a barometer then little has changed since Stephen Lawrence’s murder.

It’s not innovative apps recording police intervention that we need; it is a change in the beliefs and attitudes of those commissioning and carrying out this invasive power.  

Ian Hamilton is an associate professor of addiction at the University of York

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