Stop & search
Allegations of heavy-handed stop and search operations in Brent, writes Kurt Barling, is a reminder that policing by consent is a process of constant negotiation between the police and the community they serve
Since the events of September 11th 2001 and the emergence of the “war on terror” the Met police have finally won the argument that Stop and Search is a vital weapon in the fight against serious crime.
However, the debate about the manner in which it should be deployed against the individual citizen is as vigorous as ever.
Around a month ago I was sent some amateur footage of a series of stop and searches in and around Harlesden High Street in the North London Borough of Brent.
It shows that Harlesden late at night can be a rough and tumble kind of place. Even a smallish stop and search incident can seemingly escalate into a major confrontation.
Kola Williams, has for some years been working with young people to help divert those most vulnerable of getting involved in crime into more productive lifestyles. It’s his belief that the use of stop and search is increasing in Brent and that the way some officers behave is undermining young people’s confidence in consensual policing.
The Borough Commander in Brent, Chief Superintendent Mark Toland agreed to let me tag along with one of the robbery response teams to observe first hand how stop and search works (at least with a BBC television camera present).
Let’s not forget that officers like PC Nicolson and PC Madeley, who I accompanied, are stopping or arresting people as a matter of course because they are generally responding to trouble or trying to stop it happening.
Their job is adrenalin fuelled and can be dangerous. They always wear body armour (as I did myself and my cameramen on that evening) and at the very least they are putting themselves in high risk situations all the time.
This is central to the clash of perceptions involving those stopping and those being stopped. Those being stopped see it differently. Frequent stops and large numbers of officers turning up to an incident can feel like overkill.
Even if bystanders don’t get involved in the incident itself many can leave the scene feeling that police and community are locked in hostile engagement.
All 32 boroughs across London have established community safety partnerships involving local political leaders, community groups, the police and some other statutory agencies.
These forums are there to help manage the feedback from community to police and in turn for the police to explain to the community via their representatives just how and why they police in a certain way.
Add to this the Safer Neighbourhood police teams in each political ward and you have the mechanisms to ensure that street engagement between police and individual community members can be more effective and consensual.
Councillor Lincoln Beswick has lived in Brent since 1964 has observed many positive changes in the relationship between the police and the community over the years. He believes that some of the blame also needs to be laid at the door of residents themselves.
That parents and young people must recognise their responsibilities in policing the borough and making their own communities safer.
The man in charge of the police in Brent, Chief Superintendent Mark Toland says that there is clear evidence that stop and search is contributing to the fall of the rates of recorded crime. His assessment is that it is only deployed against prolific offenders. Whilst this may be the intention, it simply cannot be true.
In the year to the end of April 2007 there were 27,439 stops in Brent. Not all those stops can be of prolific offenders. The question this raises is one of accountability. The Independent Advisory Group which works with the police to re-assure the community has been asking for a better explanation for the number and type of stops.
No-one I spoke to in Harlesden doubted the importance of stop and search in helping to make the Borough a safer place. Nobody told me the police have got it all wrong. The principal worry was that it should be done fairly and that there should be transparency when the police are challenged on this.
At the moment that balance, say some residents at the sharp end, is not being struck.
With no likely let up in the use of stop and search unresolved complaints are likely to have a disproportionate impact on residents trust in policing across the borough overall. ~
The reality is most people who are stopped are guilty of nothing and most understand the need for the hassle.
However, if they are not dealt with fairly and that is their only interaction with the police there's a fair argument it damages trust.
It is self-evident that trust is valuable currency in policing London. Less of it means Londoners are more reluctant to provide the information police need to target criminals and make our communities safer.
last updated: 19/05/2008 at 18:42