The politics of stop and search

February 1, 2000 — Comment

Written by Lee Bridges

Much of the recent debate in the press over stop-and-search is more to do with a campaign to re-establish its political legitimacy as a policing tactic than reforming its use.

And, if the prime minister’s public endorsement of greater use of stop-and-search is anything to go by, it is a campaign in which the least progressive forces within the police are winning out.

In the process, the study commissioned by the Metropolitan Police from the former Home Office researcher, Dr Marian Fitzgerald, has got caught up in this wider political battle. This being said, Dr Fitzgerald has done much to fuel this, not least by claiming to have shown that the decline in the use of stop-and-search in London following the Macpherson Report is directly related to a rise in crime. In fact, no such definite link has been established; rather there is a statistical correlation between these two factors which can, nevertheless, simply reflect other causes of crime. It is true that many in the police and in the media believe that crime has risen because of police reluctance to use stop-and-search for fear of being accused of racism, but this is not to prove such a link.

Behind the headlines, the report makes depressing reading, as it shows that the more we understand how the police use stop-and-search, and the operational imperatives and working assumptions behind it, the less likely it appears that it will ever function in a non-racist manner. Fitzgerald herself takes a lead from the Macpherson Report and its assertion that stop-and-search powers ‘are required for the prevention and detection of crime’. In fact, there is substantial evidence to suggest that stop-and-search is a relatively ineffective tool against those crimes with which its use in relation to black people is often associated, such as robbery and so-called ‘street crime’. Despite this, it is now claimed that it is an effective tactic – indeed, virtually the only one available – against crimes such as ‘going equipped for theft’ and possession of offensive weapons, and that detection in these areas serves to prevent other, more serious crimes. The trouble is that these indirect benefits in terms of crime prevention are difficult to prove or disprove, while arrests for these types of offence can often be arbitrary and discriminatory.

This is even more so for drug offences, which remain the primary purpose for which stop-and-search is used, particularly against the black community. Fitzgerald expresses great concern over the trend she detects in young Asians being stopped and searched, often in groups, simply because of their presence on the streets in certain areas, and their arrests for possession of small quantities of cannabis. In the process, they obtain criminal records and enter into local police ‘intelligence systems’ as persons ‘known’ to the police and therefore as legitimate targets for future stops-and-searches.

Fitzgerald’s report gives a great deal of legitimacy to the ‘intelligence-gathering’ function ascribed to stop-and-search. Yet she admits that the legality of using this coercive power for such purposes is questionable, and points out that much of the so-called ‘intelligence’ gathered could be gained through other methods, such as the police simply talking to people or observing them. There is also a way in which such ‘intelligence-gathering’ becomes self-fulfilling and perpetuates racial bias in the use of stop-and-search. Black people are more likely to be ‘known’ to the police and even to have a previous criminal record (often arising from earlier stops-and-searches) and therefore can legitimately be ‘targeted’ to be stopped and searched again.

Another rationalisation for the racial bias in stop-and-search offered by the report is that black people do in fact make up a larger proportion of the relevant age group and of ‘the population on the street at the times and in the places where searches [are] most likely to occur’. But this is to accept, rather than to challenge, the working assumptions within the police that direct stop-and-search toward highly selected areas and groups in the population.

The aim behind current official efforts to ‘reform’ stop-and-search (of which this research is a part) is to make it more carefully ‘targeted’, leading to a higher proportion of arrests in relation to the number of persons stopped and searched. In this respect, new powers the government is intending to give the police, to carry out compulsory drug tests on arrested persons and to subject them, through denial of bail, to a form of preventive detention, may have a crucial role to play in re-establishing the political legitimacy of stop-and-search. The Fitzgerald report is replete with examples of the police arbitrarily stopping young black people on ‘suspicion of drugs’ but not being able to effect arrests because none are found. With this new power, however, they might be able to justify an arrest for the purposes of carrying out the compulsory drug tests.

The result will be that more stops-and-searches will be seen, at least by the government and researchers such as Dr. Fitzgerald, as legitimate because they result in arrests. The police would have used a new discretionary power in a racist way in order to legitimate an old racist practice in conducting stops-and-searches. More young black people will be criminalised, and this in turn will identify them as the target for arbitrary stops, searches and arrests in future. The spiral of police racism and conflict with young black people looks set to continue.

Related links

Inquest

Miscarriages of Justice UK

National Civil Rights Movement

Statewatch

The Monitoring Group

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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