News and Comment

Stop and Search: the misuse of these powers undermines more than just confidence in the police

Tuesday 9 July 2013


“If stop and search is being used too much or with the wrong people, it is not just a waste of police time, it also serves to undermine public confidence in the police” (Home Office spokesperson)

As the Guardian reports today, a recent Her Majesty Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report, commissioned by Theresa May to understand the use and effectiveness of Stop and Search in England and Wales, reveals that too few forces are collecting sufficient information to assess whether it has been effective. It reports that 27% of the 8,783 stop and search records examined by the HMIC show insufficient evidence to justify the lawful use of the powers. This finding, combined with the fact that black people are seven times more likely to be searched than white people, implies that people are being targeted on the basis of their racial profile. As such, misuse of Stop and Search is not just ineffective and undermining of police trust, but it is also a gross misuse of power.

Undermining trust in police and wider democratic institutions

We have recently completed various research projects with different groups of young people including a focus group with Somali boys in North London. During this session they talked about their own experiences of Stop and Search which, depressingly, echoed the HMIC report findings. The boys had both first and second hand experience of being stopped and searched in their day to day lives and felt it had made a huge dent in their trust with police. They accepted they had to show willingness to engage with the process but it meant they were less likely to go to the police with future issues or information or confide in them in general.

Moreover, the police represent not just their own forces but also the wider pillars of democratic society. Therefore, misuse of powers such as Stop and Search has an impact not just in terms of trust and confidence in their processes, but also in terms of other institutions including schools, healthcare, housing, the legal system, press and media and in local and national government. We have found that young people, including the North London Somali boys, were also less likely to engage in a range of these public institutions due to low levels of trust they placed in the system.

How mistrust becomes disengagement

Last summer saw a number of public and peaceful demonstrations against a range of austerity interventions. I asked a young, black, male friend whether he was planning to go on a march. He laughed at the suggestion. Despite sympathising with several of the causes he didn’t want to be seen anywhere near the events. His reason was because he would get into trouble, even if there was no trouble. My friend’s fear of racial profiling means that he distrusts policing at large, which effectively excludes him from engaging in many forms of democratic activity which are his right. And then the London riots kicked off and a bad situation just got worse.

Many of the young people we have spoken to, and particularly those from BME or Muslim faith groups, have reported increasing frustration at how they are negatively portrayed in the media. Misuse of powers such as Stop and Search means that we’re left with a situation where those who are most targeted due to their racial backgrounds are also those who feel most powerless in changing their situations. At worst, this leads to complete disenfranchisement with society and our democratic institutions. At best this leads to disengagement, like my friend, who is happy to keep his head down and get on, although that should not be good enough for anyone.