24 January 2012

London’s police rethinks stop and search tactics

Rebekah Delsol's avatar

Stop and search is counterproductive - alienating communities and in particular young people. Stop and search has been identified as playing a motivating role in August’s riots. Time for a rethink?

​Black people in the United Kingdom are now 30 times more likely to be stopped than white people under the exceptional stop and search powers granted by a 1994 law, according to an analysis by the Open Society Justice Initiative and London School of Economics of latest government figures.

Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was originally designed to provide exceptional responses to anticipated violence. Section 60 allows police to search any person or vehicle in an authorized area where serious violence is reasonably anticipated. This authorization lasts 24 hours and can be extended by another 24 hours. Although the legislation limits “stop and search” to a specific time and place, it does not require police officers to have any basis of reasonable suspicion for the stop.

The use of the section 60 power has risen hugely since it was introduced, highlighting a clear case of mission creep: from 7,970 section 60 stop and searches in the period 1997/98, the number of stops had risen by 2009/10 to a staggering 118,112. An exceptional power that was originally intended to combat football hooliganism and unruly late-night ‘rave’ parties has become a routine policing tool.

Black and Asian communities are the main target of these stops. Our analysis shows that during the past 12 months a black person was 29.7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person under section 60, up from 26.6 the previous year. Asian people were 7.6 times more likely to be stopped and searched, up from 6.4 in 2008/09.

Section 60 has been presented by the police as an important tool in the fight against violence and increasing knife crime. Yet, the data shows that the power is ineffective—only 2 percent of section 60 stop and searches lead to an arrest and less than less than 0.5 percent of section 60 searches led to an arrest for possession of a dangerous weapon, five times fewer than a decade ago.

It is also counterproductive—alienating communities and in particular young people. Stop and search has been identified as playing a motivating role in England’s August riots. The independent panel inquiry into the causes of the riots found in its interim report 5 Days in August that stop and search was identified as a major source of discontent with the police; in some instances, these tensions were cited as a motivating factor in the riots and a reason for some of the attacks on the police. Research by the Guardian and the LSE that was partly funded by the Open Society Foundations found that anger at the police was a major cause of the London riots, with 86 percent of rioters citing policing as an important, or very important, factor in causing the disorder.

Mounting anger over the damaging effect of stop and search on black communities have prompted the London Metropolitan Police to announce a scaling back of its use of section 60, which has become a central element of the force’s anti-knife crime strategy. The force’s commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, announced that the force will reduce by 50 percent the number of times they authorize an area to be the target of section 60 stops, and would require more intelligence before this power could be deployed in the future.

More generally, police officers would be told to focus less on stopping people for small amounts of cannabis, and instead to focus on those suspected of violent offences or of carrying weapons. Hogan-Howe committed to improve the arrest rate from all stop and searches carried out from 6 percent (at this rate the lowest for an urban force in the UK) to 20 percent overall.

The announcement comes in response to a legal challenges over police use of section 60. Ann Roberts, a 37-year-old special needs assistant, claims it is being used in a racist way against African-Caribbean people. She was stopped and searched last year under section 60, held down by officers on the floor in front of other people, handcuffed and taken to a police station where she was wrongly accused of being a user of class A drugs.

Roberts claims that a disproportionate number of black Londoners are searched, in violation of article 14 of the European convention on human rights, which bans discrimination. In July the High Court agreed she could bring a full legal challenge to section 60.

Section 60 is analogous to Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which also allowed officers to search individuals in a defined area without reasonable suspicion. Section 44 was struck down by the European Court of Human Rights in January 2010. The Court found that there was a clear risk of arbitrariness in granting such broad discretion to police offices. They ruled that continued use of these powers would interfere with the right to private life, leading to humiliation and embarrassment. The court was especially concerned about the impact of these powers on ethnic minorities, especially the black and Asian communities.

The Met’s decision to scale back stops and the Roberts’ legal challenge both hold lessons for other European countries that grant police the power to stop and search people without reasonable suspicion. In the Netherlands, “preventative searches” allow searches to take place in designated areas without reasonable suspicion, a tactic recently highlighted as a cause for concern by the national ombudsman. Similarly, in Denmark Section 6 of the Police Activities Act enables the police to establish so called “stop and search zones” in public areas, within which the police can stop any persons to search for weapons. The abuse of these searches were one of the factors in the riots that took place in Copenhagen in 2008 and 2009.

We believe there are not sufficient safeguards in place for the use of section 60 to ensure that the interference with individuals’ personal integrity and liberty that such searches entail is proportionate and in accordance with the law. We hope the Home Secretary, Theresa May, will pre-empt the legal challenge and move to amend the law on section 60, increasing safeguards and strict criteria, including judicial authorization, before the power can be mobilized. Unfortunately, the Metropolitan Police’s announcement did not mention any new measures to tackle the problem of racial disproportionality.

But we must still welcome Hogan-Howe’s announcement. It is highly symbolic to have a senior police officer publicly recognize that there is a problem, and commit to change. We will have to wait to see if change does come. In the meantime, we urge the Home Secretary and other police forces around Europe to recognize that un-curtailed stop and search powers risk damaging both communities and effective policing.

This article was originally published on the Open Society Foundations website, 24 January 2012: http://www.soros.org/voices/london-s-police-rethinks-stop-and-search-tactics