The Problem with "Stop and Search"

Stop and SearchAfter the foiled attacks in London and Glasgow, stops and searches under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 have increased in London to five times the monthly average of 2,114 to 10, 948 last month (July 2007). Twenty four per cent were Asian, 14% were black and 54% were white. Under the Act, people can be searched for “articles connected with terrorism” without “reasonable grounds” for suspicion (although the need for “reasonable grounds” applies in the case of search powers with respect to drugs, weapons and stolen goods). In February, the Association of Chief Police Officers had promised to review stop and search policy. Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman of the Metropolitan Police, a senior counter-terrorism officer, remarked at the time that stop and search damaged community relations and resulted in few arrests. The review, published in May, found that, although the power should be retained, the public needed regular and accurate updates on its use and that police officers should get further training. However, after the attacks, senior officers within the Met advised that stop and search should be used more frequently. According to Commander Rod Jarman of the Met, stop and search is a visible form of deterrence for would-be terrorists. [1] As much as anything else, it looks like the traditional show of will, determination and force on the part of the police in the wake of what could have been deadly attacks. However it is not determination that is at question here, but effectiveness.

Some questions immediately spring to mind. If searches are a blunt tool and lead to very few arrests, as the Met has admitted in the past, then is a vague rationale of “visible deterrence” adequate, given the impact on community relations? Is it really possible to know, or indeed to measure, whether “visible deterrence” actually works? I would guess not. Isn’t there a more important long term goal of building a trust-based relationship with Muslim communities, with the intelligence dividends that would accrue, rather than persisting with blunt tools like stop and search, which, when widely and indiscriminately used, damage the long term aim of policing with the full consent of Muslim communities? Unlike “visible deterrence”, the poisoning of community-police relations through stop and search has much more historical evidence to back it. As Lester Holloway, news editor of the Voice, reflected back in 2002 in relation to the Afro-Caribbean community, “Undoubtedly, stop and search has been an enormous problem that has caused decades of strife between the black community and the police.” [2] History seems to be repeating itself.

As the police now argue, profiling seems increasingly pointless. Each cell brought to trial adds to the growing evidence that, while those convicted share an extremist (mis-)interpretation of Islam, there are wide class, ethnic, residential and national differences amongst those caught. Drawing up a typical profile seems more and more difficult. Rod Jarman confirms this when he says:

Terrorists live, work and blend into our communities. They need information; accommodation, transport, communications, material and storage. Terrorists can come from any background and live anywhere. They are as likely to be seen in quiet suburban roads as they are in inner city areas. [3]

So is the answer then to merely widen the net: to apply stop and search in Croydon as much as in Tower Hamlets?

There has also been an internal police debate, and indeed one within Muslim communities too, about how stop and search should be recorded. At the moment, figures are collected on the basis of ethnicity. My understanding is that there is also an Arab category alongside “white”, “black” and “Asian”. But I’ve yet to come across publicly-released figures on the numbers of Arabs being stopped and searched in London. The large figure of 54% for “white” might be explained by the propensity of some Muslim ethnic or national groups (Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Bosnians etc) to prefer categorising themselves as “white”, as opposed to “black” or “Asian”. Anecdotally, Arab friends say that certain communities, like London’s Moroccans, feel that merely walking down the street in some parts of London is an invitation to be stopped and that they have been stopped many times. Additionally there is the question of whether religious affiliation should be monitored as well. Advocates say that it would allow unwarranted and disproportionate stops and searches on the basis of religious affiliation to be monitored and therefore contested where necessary. Opponents say that the very fact of asking what someone’s religion is, is going to alienate Muslims further, who will feel that they are being monitored by the state.

The main reason for resentment at stop and search under s.44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 seems obvious: that someone is suspected of involvement in terrorism on the basis of belonging to the same faith community, and that this suspicion need not be based on evidence. Stop and search therefore has an inherently speculative element to it. This speculative suspicion is based on what inevitably must be a stereotyping surmise linking faith identity with violent extremism. On this basis, there is bound to be some skepticism as to whether monitoring on the basis of faith identity is worthwhile in the first place. Rather, given that stop and search is a blunt and speculative form of policing, as currently framed under s.44, then the powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 ought to be curtailed to include the requirement of “reasonable grounds”. If used wisely and proportionately, on the basis of evidence, then there are grounds for cautious hope that stop and search would be less likely to alienate the very communities that the police would hope to win over, and might prove to be more effective.

Notes

[1] Sandra Laville, “More face stop and search to deter terrorists, say police”, Guardian, 7 August 2007.
[2] Anushka Asthana, “A way to curb stop and search”, New Statesman, 5 August 2002.
[3] Sandra Laville, ibid.

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Filed under Civil liberties, Racism and Islamophobia, Terrorism, UK Politics

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