10 April 2015

From negative experiences to positive ideas: youth voices on stop and search

Alice Roberti's avatar

On 17 March, we brought a group of 30 young people from across the country together in London to share their stop and search projects and create strategies to challenge the use of stop and search in their communities.

Over the past ten months StopWatch has been working with young people in three new areas, Bristol, Cardiff and Wellingborough, in order to create a StopWatch Youth Network and build a national youth voice on stop and search. In partnership with Black South West Network from Bristol, Race Equality First from Cardiff and the Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council in Wellingborough we have created and delivered a youth advocacy programme within their own areas and we were excited to bring the groups to London for a final event so that these empowered youth activists could reflect on their experiences and learning and generate new ideas to drive reform of stop and search, both locally and nationally. The specific activities undertaken through the project were chosen independently by each group so that they reflected local priorities and interests. StopWatch members delivered information sessions on stop and search, plus practical training to develop participants’ advocacy, media and peer engagement skills. After completing many successful activities within each city, the groups all came together at the Youth Showcase in London to share experiences and their work, but also in order to brainstorm ideas for how to improve stop and search practice and its impact on young people. The participants were also joined by the College of Policing and other members of StopWatch to see how different groups with their own resources and expertise could effectively work together and support each other to generate new ideas for follow up work.

Over the course of the project each group chose to focus their research on particular issues they felt were most relevant to young people’s experiences of stop and search locally and presented their findings to the group. The focus for the Bristol group was the role of the community in the way Avon and Somerset Police conduct stop and search and means of engagement. As a participant in a focus group arranged in Bristol powerfully stated, being repeatedly stopped and searched ‘makes us feel like scum bags’. It was this personal intrusion that damages the relationship between the community (especially young people) and police officers. They also mentioned the relevance of cultural and language differences coming into play. As an example, they explained how they have grown up learning ‘to look down’ as a sign of respect to elders within their own communities. They routinely do that to their parents but if you do that when talking to a police officer it gains a completely different meaning and lack of eye contact suggests you have got something to hide or that you are not taking them seriously. This kind of contrast in the different cultural codes makes the interaction between BME and the Police even more difficult because misunderstandings prevents clear communication. Therefore they suggested creating opportunities for community members to participate in police training on stop and search (as a matter of fact, improvements in this area have been considered ‘far too slow’ by the HMIC Report published on 24 March) and that officers should engage in more community events in a neutral space to build dialogue and raise cultural awareness. Not only will this improve interactions during stop and search but will also assist the police to investigate crimes more widely because ‘intelligence is information, and information is in the community. Therefore the police have to be more engaged with it’.

Our group from Cardiff focused instead on the relationship between young people and the police, and how this impacts on the daily lives of young people. Through focus groups, they had spoken to almost 30 young people in Cardiff. One of the participants, 14year old boy who has been repeatedly stopped by the police, sometimes just while he was running to catch the bus, questions ‘do we look like criminals?’. Through short quizzes that the team conducted to kick off their focus groups, it became clear that many young people do not know their rights. What also became clear was that the majority of stop and searches they experienced were conducted improperly; one key finding is that hardly any young people had ever received a receipt – or even knew they were entitled to one. This was just one of the reasons behind the extremely low number of young people making complaints in Cardiff, possibly also suggesting that many searches are going unrecorded in the first place. These discussions led to confusion as to why the police are stopping innocent young people for no reason and frustration that even routine activities have been criminalised and the daily movements of a young person is interpreted as suspicious. These thoughts inevitably affects the relationship between young people and the Police as it is difficult to trust and respect the police when they are subjected to this unfair treatment. As a result, the group felt that groups who are independent from the police should deliver training and education on young people’s rights during stop and search and that the Police should make a concerted effort to make young people aware of the option to complain if required.

The group from Wellingborough chose to focus on the most common experience shared in their area, one which is less built up, urban and crowded: being stopped by police whilst driving. According to their survey findings, which are also consistent with the HMIC report, traffic stops are much more likely to happen to black respondents than to others and many were concerned that the searches were unlawful. The fact that none of them received a record of the search made it difficult to understand which legal power was being applied in the stops that each was subject to. The group suggested that police officers should have a better understanding of what constitutes a ‘reasonable ground for suspicion’ and that equality and discrimination training should be provided to officers led by  members of the community. Finally, they recommended recording the use of Section 163 of the Road Traffic Act and making the data publicly available to enable groups such as theirs to monitor how the power is being used.

Having given a lot of thought to what they would like to change to improve stop and search practice, a session delivered by the College of Policing then gave them the opportunity to make some concrete suggestions and consider how they might be implemented. The goal of this activity was to think about ways in which they could use their experiences to influence both national and local policing practices. The participants had many ideas, among which were the creation of monitoring groups, peer training programmes, better recording and publishing of local data about stop and search to enhance police transparency, improve the engagement by Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) with the community and of police officers in youth clubs. The three groups shared the idea that engagement would be an effective way to overcome the problems caused by stop and search because ‘the more talking, the more respect’ is created. However, our group from Cardiff shared their disappointing experience that upon completing their activities, they invited a senior police officer to their final event to present and discuss their ideas for better practice but the officer cancelled last minute and no replacement was sent. Similar experiences were also shared by the other groups when they attempted to meet with decision makers and it became clear these had the potential to build resentment, but that engagement was nevertheless fundamental to improving the relationship between police and the community. In spite of these experiences, the groups still felt it must come from both sides: ‘we have to try to help them as much as they should help us’.

The process will not be easy and there is much work to do on both sides. In the next session it became clear that the media could be a tool in this. Local media is a good means to spread information to many different audiences, from young people to police, and it is especially useful to engage parents and the older community. In order to change policing it is crucial to ‘produce evidence, speak up and make complaints’ and local and national media are key to getting these voices out. Stop and search, they realized, is considered a common experience so from a news angle it can often be hard to sell to the media. However, the group learnt that through carefully framing people’s experiences and highlighting the less common - and even shocking -experiences we can come up with new ways to sell our stories through a quick and effective pitch, strong enough to be newsworthy.

This StopWatch Youth networking project has been successful in bringing together young people and ideas and it raised awareness and action within three different communities on the problems of stop and search. Each community focused on specific topics, from the relationship between police and young people to the use of traffic stops, but all of them shared a common idea: more accountability and transparency is being demanded by the police and the community has a role in engaging to help both parties access the support and information needed to work more effectively. In order to fulfill this goal, the training by the College of Policing and StopWatch gave the participants the tools to continue their work even after the end of this particular project. These participants may have shared negative experiences of stop and search but they also came up with several proposals on how to improve the situation and they left inspired and committed to achieving these goals.