By Farouq Suleiman and Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) – For British police, the stop and search tactic is a vital tool in its fight against drugs and knife crime, and the government says its use should be ramped up.
But for many in the Black community it is a blunt instrument, often a humiliating experience which sows distrust and reinforces a perception that some officers are racist.
On Wednesday, the divisive debate over how those powers are used again rose to prominence when two British police officers were found guilty of gross misconduct.
They were among five officers who faced a disciplinary hearing after stopping Black athletes Bianca Williams and her Portuguese partner Ricardo Dos Santos outside their west London home while their young baby was in the back of the car.
Allegations against the other three officers, including that they breached police standards over equality and diversity, were not proven.
Footage of the incident showed Williams, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, handcuffed and in a distressed state, leading to accusations the couple had been stopped simply because they were Black and in an expensive car.
“A lot of people that we’ve come across have said, ‘look, if the police need to do a stop and search, really need to do one, then fine’,” said Habib Kadiri, executive director of StopWatch, which campaigns for more effective policing.
“But the treatment that’s given to them during the stop and search is something that they find is really problematic.”
Under English law, police have the right to stop and search an individual who they suspect of carrying drugs or a weapon, and additional powers mean officers can search people in a designated area during a specific time without reasonable grounds.
Latest government figures show police in England and Wales conducted 547,003 stop and searches in the year ending March 2023, up 3% on the previous year.
Those who identified as Black or Black British were subjected to 25 searches per 1,000 of population, compared to just six per 1,000 for those who were white.
Of those stopped, 14% were arrested, while no further action resulted from 70% of incidents.
“You have to ask the question, why are people being stopped so much and nothing being found in the vast majority of stops,” Kadiri told Reuters.
London police chiefs themselves admit that stop and search is used disproportionately because of the areas they target to prevent violence, with young Black men far more likely to be victims of knife crimes.
Official figures showed in the year ending June 2023, knife crime offences were up 3% to 50,833 offences, with a 21% increase in London.
In the year to March 2022, 99 young people died in a knife incident in England and Wales, 31 of them Black, and just last month, the fatal stabbing of a 15-year-old Black girl on her way to school shocked the nation.
Home Secretary (interior minister) Suella Braverman has said stop and search should be used more.
“The police have my full support to ramp up the use of stop and search, wherever necessary, to prevent violence and save more lives,” Braverman said in June.
“Every death from knife crime is a tragedy. That’s why I also back the police in tackling this blight in communities which are disproportionately affected, such as among young black males.”
But the conundrum for police is how to use the tactic without alienating the communities they are seeking to help.
An independent review by welfare expert Louise Casey in March, which concluded the London force was institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic, found there was a view in the capital’s communities of colour that they were both over-policed and under-protected.
“We heard that being stopped and searched can be humiliating and traumatic,” it said, highlighting research which questioned whether indiscriminate use of stop and search was effective and saying the police focused on whether searches were lawful, rather than whether they were done well or their impact.
“The pressure is less about the volume of searches at the moment and more about the manner in which the searches are conducted,” Kadiri said.
“What we get a lot of is calls from people who … think that (police officers) are far too egregious in their actions. We’re not happy with routine handcuffing, which is a phenomenon that’s … found its way into searches.”
Mark Rowley, the head of London police, has agreed stop and search needed reform if the force was to win back the trust of young people, and they would regularly review how it could be done better.
“We are going to use the right tactics to tackle violence on the streets of London,” told the News Agents podcast in June. “Stop and search is a key tactic in that … If it’s done badly, it burns through trust.”
(Writing by Michael Holden; editing by John Stonestreet)