Stop and search can’t be reformed. It needs to be scrapped entirely.

UK Black Lives Matter protest 2020

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has published a report in which it urges police in England and Wales to address their disproportionate use of stop and search powers against Black and racially minoritised people.

Published on 20 April, the report sets out recommendations for police to “improve” their use of the power.

But as racialised communities have been saying for decades, they don’t need any more reports or empty promises of reform. Stop and search is an inherently discriminatory practice, especially when carried out by a racist institution. It’s time to scrap the police power once and for all.

Yet another damning report

The report’s findings are all too familiar.

It states that in the year ending March 2021, police in England and Wales were seven times more likely to stop and search Black people than their white counterparts. While avoiding direct blame, the IOPC highlights how racist discrimination and stereotyping can factor in to stop and search.

The report’s findings include that police regularly rely on the smell of cannabis as the sole grounds for a stop. As the IOPC explains, this doesn’t justify a stop and search. It also notes that officers’ “insufficient and poor-quality communication” is a key cause for anxiety and resistance from those being stopped. It adds that officers summarily resort to handcuffing those being searched, rather than working to de-escalate the confrontation.

The report sets out a number case studies exemplifying the police’s discriminatory, excessive, and unjustified use of stop and search powers against Black children and young people. This includes a case in which officers allegedly stopped and searched a Black child more than 60 times over a two year period, leaving him traumatised.

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It also highlights other cases, such as an officer punching and kicking a Black child to the ground, having stopped the child for allegedly smelling of cannabis. In another case, an officer handcuffed a “compliant and polite” 12-year-old Black child “within 20 seconds of the officer exiting his police vehicle”.

Beyond reform

We don’t need another woolly report to understand the disproportionate harm caused by stop and search. We already know that that police in England and Wales disproportionately stop and search Black people compared to the general population. And that they’re more likely to use force against Black people.

We know that in 2020 the Met was 19 times more likely to stop and search young Black men than London’s general population. We also know that police use stop and search powers disproportionately against children, making Black youngsters particularly vulnerable to traumatising police harassment and brutality.

The IOPC report’s case studies offer just a snapshot of the routine harassment that racialised children and young people experience at the hands of police every day.

As long as police have the power to stop and search, these disparities – and the trauma of police harassment – will persist.

Institutionally racist

The report comes while – decades on from the MacPherson Report – the Met continues to dither over whether the force is institutionally racist. A look at only a handful of recent cases will confirm what Met bosses are struggling to articulate.

Indeed, a review in March revealed officers’ humiliating and degrading strip search of Child Q, and police stopped a Black man because he wasn’t “dressed for the climate“. Officers targeted him again days later.

A recent pilot found that officers disproportionately targeted Black people for drug testing following arrest. And officers are increasingly using surveillance technology to target young Black people.

This all sits in the broader context of excessive and disproportionate deaths in police custody and police use of force. Even officers themselves aren’t safe from racism in their ranks, as 90% of Met officers disciplined for internal racism remain active in the force.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that stop and search is discriminatory and doesn’t deter crime, the government seeks to further expand stop and search powers through its authoritarian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Scrap the police power

Stop and search, and policing in general, does not prevent crime. It doesn’t protect communities, and it only serves to traumatise and criminalise the most marginalised people in society.

We must demand an end to the expansion of police powers, including stop and search, set out in the police bill. And we must withdraw consent from harmful and discriminatory policing.

It’s evident that police forces have no intention of halting their excessive and discriminatory use of stop and search powers. Therefore, we must all be equipped to intervene when we see stops occur. Indeed, as members of the public, we have the right to dictate how our communities are policed.

The London Campaign Against Police and State Violence (LCAPSV) has set out guidance for intervening in police stops. And police monitoring organisation StopWatch has created guidance for parents and children, as well as a guide on how to make complaints against the police. Meanwhile, the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) has published a practical guide on how to monitor the police.

Elsewhere, local police monitoring groups such as Hackney Copwatch and Bristol Copwatch, routinely hold bystander intervention workshops.

It’s vital that we support those working to hold the police to account, as well as groups like Sisters Uncut, Abolitionist Futures, and Community Action on Prison Expansion which are working to build radical alternatives to police and prisons.

It’s up to us to play an active role in undermining the legitimacy of policing so we can work towards a safer society for everyone.

Featured image via Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash

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  • Show Comments
    1. I can only see this issue from my experience of committing crime in the 1970s. 1980s and some of the 1990s. A lot has changed in that time. I remember my first stop and search in a vehicle where the police officer asked if I had “any of them cannabis pills”. In the early 1970s the police didn’t even know the time of day. I’ll never forget the time they were waiting for me coming out of a club, I knew they were after me so I ran as soon as I saw the van take off from its “hiding” place (hard to hide a van). After a short chase I was left with the option of jumping in a canal or handing myself in… ‘What you after me for, I haven’t done anything’. ‘If you haven’t done anything, why did you run’ Fair question: the car I was about to get in was stolen, plated up to a legal one, with it chassis plates wrapped in cloth in the boot. I was off my head on amphetamines. I had been arrested for burgling a chemist during the week but the police had to let me go because the co-accused evidence didn’t stand up. Then there was was the stop I couldn’t forget… well, not the interrogation in the back of the SPG van. Held on the floor with a copper blocking off my air, nose clamped, mouth covered, until I was given chance to answer the question. It might not have been waterboarding but it was a form of torture. Again, I was in a stolen car, two (or was it three) warrants out for my arrest, but when they searched my flat they missed a bag of pills and capsules but commented on the large number of rolls of camera film I had… both had come out of a chemist shop. ‘Yeah, I’m in the photography club at college’.
      What you will have gathered from the stop and searches is that the police had some reason to stop and search me. I have had more than my fair share of them but unlike many of the innocents who are subjected to SAS I was up to no good. I carried a knife all through the 1970s – a habit that started for good reason, a group of bouncers and their mates were after me.
      Did SAS make me modify my actions? Yes – to some extent. It kept me on my toes. But it is a blunt instrument. Many times I was searched but either I had chance to dump the gear or it was well enough hid, or the police were not good at looking, so it went undiscovered. I remember one stop where the copper was absolutely brilliant. All he had was eye contact as we passed each other – there was nothing about the situation, the time of day, the road, the area to alert him that something wasn’t right about me, Just the eye contact told him. He read it so well. I also read it, wound down the passenger window of the car and three a package out as the police car turned round to chase me. He was bang on, but too late. How many times does that happen? No one has carried out a study on this aspect of SAS. The figures for unsuccessful searches are trotted out as if they have a cast iron relationship to reality! I once watched a line of lads getting searched with them passing an air gun along to the one who could hide in in the hedge.
      The fact that some police officers cannot make good judgements and are inept at their jobs does not mean SAS should be thrown out. As I said, it keeps people who routinely carry weapons on their toes. Ending the criminalisation of drugs would be a far better way to stop many senseless motives for searching people – it would also do something about the need for weapons.

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