‘Anti-terrorism’ policing leads to arbitrary use of stop and search

‘Anti-terrorism’ policing leads to arbitrary use of stop and search


Written by: Arun Kundnani

From today, the police will have a host of new powers to stop, search and detain suspects. Is the post-Macpherson concept of ‘intelligence-led’ policing giving way to abuses in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’?

The Home Office claims that new powers coming into effect today, under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, are necessary in the fight against terrorism. Under the Act’s provisions, police officers have been given further licence in the use of stop and search powers. In addition, the maximum period of detention for which a suspect can be held without charge under suspicion of terrorism has been extended to fourteen days.

But is the ‘war against terrorism’ providing a cover for disciminatory policing? Analysis of recently released stop and search figures suggests that existing powers may be being abused.

Discrimination hidden

The Home Office claims that figures published in December 2003 show that 13 per cent of the 895,300 stop and searches carried out by police forces in England and Wales in 2002/03 led to an arrest – the highest rate since 1992. For the police, this is supposed to indicate the success of their ‘intelligence-led’ approach to stop and search. That more than one in ten of those stopped was arrested, is considered by them a good rate of success, answering the demands after the Macpherson report for less arbitrary use of stop and search.

But the headline figures published by the Home Office refer only to stops carried out under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). Increasingly, police forces are using other powers to conduct stops – either Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 or, more recently, Sections 44(1) and 44(2) of the Terrorism Act 2000. The stops conducted under these powers are recorded as separate figures and do not show up in the summary sections of Home Office reports. In the year 2002/03, 82,920 people were stopped and searched under these powers, a tenfold increase over the last three years. Of these stops, 3,646 resulted in an arrest – a rate of only 4 per cent – suggesting that these powers are being used in an arbitrary way.

Anti-terrorist operations underestimated

Furthermore, research by the civil liberties group Statewatch suggests that some police forces are mounting operations in which pedestrians and vehicles are being stopped and searched on suspicion of terrorism but that these stops are then recorded as being conducted under the 1994 Act (which was introduced to deal with football hooligans and ravers) rather than under the Terrorism Act. Thus, the real extent of stop and search under anti-terrorist provisions is being disguised.

Statewatch estimates that, when this is taken into account, there were more than 71,000 stop and searches as part of anti-terrorist operations – more than double the official figures. The percentage of arrests resulting was only 1.18 per cent – the majority of which were not connected with terrorism. Statewatch argues that ‘the low arrest rate and the large number of people stopped and searched suggests that these powers are being widely used to little effect’.

The return of ‘sus’

The ‘intelligence-led’ approach to stop and search has had its critics – those who felt that it was indirectly arbitrary, basing its targeting on previous police ‘intelligence’ that might itself be distorted by prejudice. But, the use of powers in the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act and 2000 Terrorism Act appears, from the published figures, to be even more arbitrary – giving the police an opportunity to deploy ‘sus’ tactics without the restraints that have been imposed on PACE powers since the Macpherson Inquiry. Since April last year, guidance on PACE powers has specifically excluded suspicion on the basis of a person’s race or generalisations about ethnic groups. But the Terrorism Act 2000 allows police officers to conduct a search on the basis of a suspect’s ethnic origin.

Behind the statistics lies the danger that Black and Minority Ethnic communities – particularly Muslim communities – are being singled out for discriminatory policing. An analysis, carried out by the Institute of Race Relations last year, revealed that African-Caribbeans were eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than Whites under PACE powers – a higher ratio than that recorded before the publication of the Macpherson report in 1999. And in the Metropolitan Police area, there was a 40 per cent increase in Asians stopped and searched in 2001/02 – the largest increase ever recorded in a single year for any group.

Searches under Section 60 of the 1994 Act, which are deployed with increasing frequency, are only supposed to be applied in limited circumstances – if police believe there is a serious risk of violence. But when the measure was introduced by Michael Howard in 1994, amid public concern over football hooliganism and outdoor raves, police officers were granted a wide discretion in choosing when to use the power. Research by criminologist Ben Bowling last year found that African-Caribbeans are 27 times more likely than Whites to be stopped under Section 60 of the 1994 Act and Asians are 18 times more likely to be stopped.

Overall, the figures suggest that the ‘war against terrorism’ has provided the opportunity for a partial abandoning of the post-Macpherson agenda of targeted stops in favour of an increasingly discriminatory use of stop and search.

Related links


Arrests for Notifiable Offences and the Operation of Certain Police Powers under PACE, Home Office (pdf file, 500kb, 12 December 2003)

Police step up targetting of Blacks and Asians – IRR report

Statewatch Bulletin, November-December 2003 (Vol. 13 No. 6)
Guardian, 21 April 2003

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

One thought on “‘Anti-terrorism’ policing leads to arbitrary use of stop and search

  1. The police are using the war on terror on the Asian community as a form of fascism and nazism there is BNP elements within the police service.

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