The return of “SUS”?
'Stop and search is back!' scream the headlines. But as Kurt Barling writes, did it ever really go away?
'Stop and search is back!', screamed some tabloid headlines. Kurt Barling writes it never went away. But political plans to reduce the bureaucracy involved in Stop and Search is also a licence to avoid checks and balances on abuse fear some community workers.
Acting on suspicion was the prerogative of every police officer from 1824 to 1981. Under the 1824 vagrancy act it was possible to arrest an individual if a police officer believed an arrestable offence was likely to be committed.
Stopping on suspicion or “sus” during Operation Swamp in the summer of 1981 led to resentment from many young people in urban areas. Black people felt especially targeted although the evidence from the riots showed there was plenty of resentment amongst white youngsters too.
After the Brixton riots in 1981 Lord Scarman’s inquiry found that the overuse of the “sus” laws by the police was a contributory factor to those events.
Many fear that a reincarnation of the so-called “sus” laws would increase the disproportionate number of minorities stopped by the police and weaken the levels of police/community trust that have been built up across the capital.
The current rules were drawn up specifically to deal with the concerns of forums like the Race Equality Councils in different London boroughs. These bodies were developed as a point of contact between minority communities and statutory organisations like the police.
As the rules stand, officers on the beat must get permission from a senior officer before they can stop and search. Crucially they must fill out a form which outlines why the person has been stopped. A copy of that form is given to the person stopped; it gives an explanation of why the stop took place.
The Conservative leader David Cameron has now challenged the idea that the rules are there to protect young Black and Asian people from being police targets. Instead he says young Asian and black people are simple becoming targets of crime because the police can’t do their job properly for fear of being labelled racist or simply overwhelmed with paperwork. He also claimed that racism is no longer a significant issue for the police.
The Labour government has already hinted that it was planning changes to the way Stop and Search would be carried out. The Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Ronnie Flanagan recommended in his report to government last September that excessive paperwork around Stop and Search should be “significantly reduced”.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has said the Home Office is committed to implementing his key recommendations. Prime Minister Gordon Brown added his political muscle to this at Prime Minister’s Question time in the last week of January by saying his government planned to get tough on the perpetrators of youth crime. He seemed to imply that he might remove some of the key means of making police accountable for the amount and manner in which they Stop and Search. The Flanagan report is due out shortly.
Far from being against Stop and Search minority community representatives on Independent Police Advisory Groups tend to be supportive of the police. In London the emphasis has by and large been on making sure that people are not alienated from the police by insensitive use of what is recognised as an important police tactic.
Building trust between the police and the part of the community most likely to be stopped and searched has been a key foundation of “policing by consent”. Every London Borough now has an established forum where this trust is constantly negotiated.
A former chair of the Metropolitan Police Stop and Search Community Consultative Group, George Hargreaves, is really worried about the impact of the proposed changes. He said these ideas were dangerously wrong in an environment in which minorities are up to seven times more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts. He believes the proposed changes would undermine the principles of “policing by consent”.
BBC London's Kurt Barling
Many of those individuals involved in liaison between the police and minority communities believe for Stop and Search to be effective, the police have to show it is justified based on evidence and that it is accountable.
Kevin Haggarty from the REAL group in Lewisham South London is responsible for a scheme where young people talk to young police recruits about their experiences of Stop and Search. He says that when the tactic fails it harms the relationship between police and individual and often the family and broader community. He is also says eradicating racism from the police service is a work in progress.
Many believe that the real consequence of getting Stop and Search wrong is less cooperation with the police. Above all this will stem the flow of intelligence. The proverbial “wall of silence” does not make for safer communities.
Over the past year most crime has dropped significantly across London according to the Metropolitan police’s own figures. Safer Neighbourhood teams may have played their part in this by increasing the confidence of local communities to report crime.
One common observation from young people who have been stopped and searched is that the slip of paper they are given by the police is a defence against abuse. There is broadly recognition that Stop and Search is necessary (and that it is not cool to admit it) and that it does help reassure people.
2007 was a very bad year for teenage deaths on London’s streets. 27 in total died from stab or gunshot wounds. This year there have already been three such deaths.
The question that nobody can satisfactorily answer at the moment is whether Stop and Search would have made a significant difference on these figures.
last updated: 19/05/2008 at 18:41