To be clear from the outset, stop and search does not effectively reduce serious youth violence. It simply enables the police to aggressively control public space and discriminate against ethnic minorities, and in doing so it damages the relationships between the communities affected and the police.
The recent announcement of the home secretary, Priti Patel, extending stop and search powers under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, is the latest in a line of policy announcements from this government that are designed to attract short-term political support rather than to keep our streets safe and our police forces accountable. These proposals also conveniently remove the safeguards introduced by Theresa May as home secretary in 2014 under the best use of stop and search scheme. At a time when we should be working together for solutions we instead have politicking and legacy denigration.
The lack of meaningful engagement with impacted communities, grassroots community groups and civil society organisations about the changes is telling. The Metropolitan police recently apologised after its commissioner, Cressida Dick, wrongly stated at a home affairs committee last month that the force had been regularly consulting with the campaign group StopWatch. For transparency, StopWatch has yet to meet Dick since she began her tenure in April 2017. Neither has any representative from the Metropolitan police met StopWatch for the past three years. It is good to know that we are significant enough that people are telling mistruths about having met us though. StopWatch has now requested a meeting and is awaiting a response.
The section 60 pilot launched by the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, has not even finished let alone undergone an independent review. And yet Boris Johnson’s government has decided to roll it out across England and Wales based on “feedback”. Whether this is incompetence, stupidity or woeful ignorance, we should be challenging elected officials and policymakers to implement measures that are fair and effective, not reactionary and regressive.
If an evidence-based approach to the use of stop and search were to be adopted it would be obvious that it is not as beneficial as the government claims. One only need look to the research published by the College of Policing in 2017 which stated that there was only limited evidence that stop and search tactics had a meaningful deterrent effect on crime. If research isn’t your thing then listen to the words of a chief constable who told the Guardian that “there are so many areas where we could improve the life chances of people, rather than arresting them and putting them into a conveyor belt of the criminal justice system, which often leads to them becoming harder and harsher criminals”.
At Stopwatch we know all too well the impact of disproportionate stop and search. Since 2010 our organisation has worked to highlight the perils of allowing excessive and disproportionate police powers to be used on individuals – particularly those with black and brown skin. Disproportionate use of stop and search perpetuates racial discrimination and class discrimination. In our report The Colour Of Injustice, published in October 2018, we found that the rates of stop and search carried out by police were affected more by levels of deprivation and inequality than crime. This in turn fuelled disproportionality, as people from black and other minority ethnic groups tend to live in deprived areas and were frequently subjected to stop and search. By contrast, white people living in relatively affluent and wealthy areas were subjected to very low rates of stop and search. The difference in treatment is not justifiable.
With the pandemonium of a knife crime epidemic upon us, government strategists lace TV, print and online news with stories meant to convince us that stop and search really is the best that we can do. The voices of campaigners who have pored over masses of data and listened to hundreds of firsthand accounts of the egregious impact of this practice are pressed into a half-minute segment which is supposed to balance out the polished and unsupported statements of our prime minister and home secretary. The soundbite nature of TV news has made it easy for government to erode our civil liberties. It forces a debate about the efficacy of stop and search upon us when there is no real debate to be had: all the evidence tells us this is a terrible idea.
The figures are the figures and according to Home Office statistics between April 2017 and March 2018, a mere 2% of stop and searches carried out under section 60 actually lead to an arrest for an offensive weapon. This is pitiful, especially when compared with the 14% of stop and searches carried out under section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 that lead to an arrest for an offensive weapon. What this means is that when officers conduct a search with reasonable grounds they are more likely to uncover a weapon. Yet ministers push for the least effective use of the power to be used more.
If the government’s stated aim is to take knives off our street, then why not consider other methods? In March it was reported that knife amnesty bins had been credited with removing 50,000 knives from the streets of London. However, the number of knife amnesty bins has been reduced from 36 in 2012 to 18 in 2019. The reduction has been attributed to a loss in public funding – funding that is unlikely to be replenished under this government’s proposals.
Ultimately, the government’s reliance on section 60 stop and searches is no solution to the social problems underlying serious youth violence in the UK. It is high time police forces explored more innovative ways of keeping our communities healthy rather than relying on the same old dogmas for political gain.
• Katrina Ffrench is chief executive of StopWatch