17 January 2012
Stop and search reform must look at efficacy
Sarah McSherry discusses the need for a focus on efficacy of stop and search practice.
Last week’s announcement from the Metropolitan police on reforming stop and search followed mounting criticism and various legal challenges before the courts. We know the power disproportionately targets black people and other ethnic minorities. In England and Wales, black people are 7 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by the police. This rises to 30 times more likely when police use powers granted by section 60 of the Public Order Act, which allows people to be stopped and search without reasonable suspicion.
These, and ongoing concerns about community and police relations following the summer riots in England, no doubt played a part in prompting the recent announcement, which is emblematic of the Met’s reactionary approach to dealing with discriminatory policing.
Met police commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, insists the definition of a successful stop and search is one that results in an arrest. Indeed, he said that he wants arrest rates from all stop and searches carried out to increase from the current rate of 6% to 20%. That definition is flawed. A successful stop and search is not evidenced by an arrest, or a prosecution.
Our client Leebourne Clarke has more reason than most to hold that view. The same day as the announcement, Clarke, who is of black Caribbean ethnicity, settled his claim against Hogan-Howe for race discrimination, assault and battery, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. The commissioner agreed to pay him damages in the sum of £50,000 plus his legal costs. The events giving rise to the claim started with a stop and search.
On 17 September 2007, Clarke was stopped by two officers who falsely alleged he smelled of cannabis which they claimed gave reasonable suspicion to search him. They then proceeded to assault him, took him to the police station, subjected him to a strip search and held him for 12 hours. Nothing was found. In order to justify their actions, the officers charged Clarke with obstructing a search and assaulting a police officer as a result of which he was maliciously prosecuted.
After nearly 18 months he was acquitted following a trial in the crown court. This case will have counted as a statistical “success”, when in actual fact it was an unlawful stop, assault, imprisonment and prosecution of a young black man.
All too often we represent young people who end up being arrested due to the improper exercise of stop and search powers, rather than because of something found during the search. We see too many cases where a young person has done nothing to attract police attention other than dressing in a certain way, being black or being from a deprived area.
The search is escalated by police behaviour and ultimately results in the young person being arrested for obstructing a police officer or a public order offence. Is this really a success? A situation where, but for the search itself, that young person would not be hauled through the criminal justice system?
The police have been too slow to respond to concerns about stop and search which are nationwide, not confined to London. They procrastinated until crises like the summer disturbances and legal action forced their hand. It is time for a national debate about the efficacy of stop and search, its increasingly disproportionate use and how best to address the damage already caused to community relations.
In the meantime, we wait with interest to know whether Hogan-Howe will agree to include the details of Clarke’s case in Metropolitan Police Service Equality and Diversity training and the terms of his apology.
This article was originally published in The Guardian, 17 January 2012: http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2012/jan/17/stop-search-reform-efficacy