Police stop and search: What about young people’s voices?*
What’s the point of stop and search anyway? From talking to other young people, it really seems to being doing more harm than good. The recent interim report from the Riots, Community and Victim Panel which interviewed hundreds of people involved in last summer’s disturbances found that stop and search was one of main motivating factors for rioting. Given that the use of stop and search has repeatedly been highlighted as an issue of concern for young people, it’s clear that not enough is being done to consult us about stop and search tactics, even though we are the people most likely to be on the receiving end of them.
I have lived in east London all my life and when I was at university I moved to Clapton, an area known by the police as the so-called ‘murder mile’. The idea of stop and search is not new to my friends and I – it’s like background music- you kind of forget it’s still going on.
A group of friends in their early twenties – three boys and two girls – were coming back from a festival this summer when they were all stopped and searched by police. They don’t carry weapons and are not involved in gangs: they were dressed like loads of other people at the festival – in dresses, jeans and t-shirts. One is a teacher and a couple are at university, but they are all black and grew up in Hackney, so they weren’t even surprised to be targeted. They were just disappointed that it was still happening to them.
As well as being in a group, it seems that you’re more likely to be stopped if you’re in an area which the police have labelled ‘dangerous’ or ‘troublesome’. There’s even what I call ‘stop and search attire’. My friends from various parts of London know that they’re more likely to get stopped when coming home from the gym or in casual clothes, for example, because they might be wearing hoodies or tracksuit bottoms. Should we really have to change what we wear just to accommodate the stereotypical views of police officers?
Some people assume that because I’m female, or because I’m not a teenager anymore, I wouldn’t be a target, but I still am, and so are people around me.
Being stopped and searched by the police is embarrassing and humiliating. It usually happens in public, so anyone watching assumes that you’ve done something wrong.
For my dissertation at University I decided to focus on an issue affecting London youth, I chose Stop and Search. When I’ve been stopped and searched, I found it a degrading experience. I was told to stand in a line with three other people, frisked and then given a yellow receipt. Whilst researching, I discovered that black people are seven times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by the police. I see it happen all the time, but to see the facts – and for the difference to be so extreme – was still shocking to me. I wanted to help change this statistic and found StopWatch, a coalition working to challenge this race bias. I am now a member of their youth group, which enables me to participate and engage with various projects concerning the issue.
I think it’s really important that the police speak to more young people. The stories are out there, and they need to be heard. As a member of StopWatch, I recently helped produce a film, ‘Profiles of the Profiled’, that captures some of the experiences young people in London have of the police. Making the film confirmed that the embarrassment and injustice I felt was shared by many other young people.
Stop and search is often seen as the solution to youth violence and knife crime, but there are limits to what it can achieve. Young people are not stupid, they know the ‘hot spots’ for searches and they know how to avoid them. Nathan, a fellow StopWatch youth group member, explained ‘I know where the police are going to be. If I carried a knife and didn’t want to get stopped, I’d know where to avoid.’ Nathan has never had any trouble with the ‘law’, but it is clear to him that, in some areas, being black is just a prerequisite of stop and search procedure.
For those who do carry knives, stop and search clearly isn’t the deterrent that the police and politicians seem to imagine. Many young people in London feel unsafe. With all the commotion over ‘postcode territory wars’, it should not come as a surprise that more and more young people are trying to protect themselves. Many young people simply don’t feel protected by the police. The fear that you are going to be stopped and arrested for possession of a knife is less important than fears about your personal safety.
Kit Malthouse, a conservative politician, claimed that stop and search could be made fairer and more effective. He suggested that a stronger female police presence and introducing ‘community observers’ would ensure a fairer stop and search. How can he make such strong claims? Why would female officers help the situation? The notion of having a ‘community observer’ seems quite positive. However, Ken Hinds, a black youth worker was observing a stop and search at a distance. He was arrested and charged, and later paid £22,000 in compensation from the British Transport Police for being wrongly accused. Why was he arrested? Maybe we can only ‘observe’ when the police feel it is appropriate.
I am not claiming to have all the answers, or that we should abolish stop and search. However, from talking to lots of young people I do realise that the disproportionate number of stop and searches is becoming more obvious.
Also, I would say that you shouldn’t make assumptions about someone if you see them being stopped and searched on the street. They probably don’t know why they’ve been picked out of a crowd any more than you do.
By Monique Lane
*All views expressed in this article are the author’s. IARS accepts no responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any views expressed in these articles and will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information or any losses or damages arising from its display or use.