Stop and search: police step up targetting of Blacks and Asians

Stop and search: police step up targetting of Blacks and Asians

Written by: Arun Kundnani

An analysis by the Institute of Race Relations has revealed that the number of stops and searches conducted by the police in England and Wales has gone up for the first time since the publication of the Macpherson report, with Blacks and Asians bearing the brunt of the increase.*

Black people are now eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than Whites – a higher ratio than that recorded by police before the publication of the report in 1999 into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. In that report, Sir William Macpherson acknowledged that ‘the perception… that discrimination is a major element in the stop and search problem is correct’. In the aftermath of Macpherson’s report, stops and searches decreased for all ethnic groups, falling by 34 per cent in two years. But, over the last two years, while the number of Whites stopped and searched has continued to fall by a further 19 per cent, the number of Blacks stopped and searched has increased by 28 per cent. For every 1,000 Black people in England and Wales, the police are currently conducting 106 stops and searches each year.

The increase in the number of Asians stopped and searched has been even more dramatic – a rise of 28 per cent over the last year alone, in England and Wales. In the Metropolitan Police area during the last year, there has been a massive 40 per cent increase in Asians stopped and searched – the largest increase ever recorded in a single year for any group. Nationally, Asians are now two-and-a-half times more likely to be stopped and searched than Whites.

On 1 April 2003, new guidance on the use of stop and search comes into effect which clarifies that searches are only meant to be based on ‘reasonable grounds for suspicion’. That is defined as ‘suspicion based on facts, information, and/or intelligence’ and specifically excludes suspicion on the basis of a person’s race or on generalisations about ethnic groups. However, new stop and search powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 allow police officers to take a suspect’s ethnic origin into account when deciding whether to search someone under suspicion of terrorism. The Act also introduces a new power to require a person to remove headgear and footwear in public.

As recommended by the Lawrence Inquiry Report, police will now also be required to keep a record of so-called ‘voluntary’ searches and stops which are not followed by a search. The recorded figures currently exclude these kinds of stops and those under the Road Traffic Act.

The Commission for Racial Equality has, this week, warned that it may use its legal powers against the police on the issue of stop and search. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 makes it unlawful for police officers to discriminate on the grounds of race, colour, ethnic origin, nationality or national origins when using their powers.

Prosecutions and acquittals

Figures published by the Home Office last week also reveal a continuing trend in the proportion of Blacks and Asians who are acquitted by magistrates’ courts. This figure is widely believed to give some indication of the level of discrimination in the criminal justice system since an appearance at court may be the first chance a defendant has to argue his innocence – despite biases among magistrates. Of those cases proceeded with by the Crown Prosecution Service, the proportion which are discontinued, withdrawn or otherwise do not result in a conviction has consistently been higher for Blacks and Asians – suggesting that these groups are subjected to a disproportionate number of prosecutions without sufficient evidence. Whereas the proportion which result in Whites being convicted has been consistently around 55 per cent, the proportion which result in Blacks and Asians being convicted has been around 40 per cent (in those areas which keep records). This indicates that the proportion of innocent Blacks and Asians being processed through the system is far higher than that for Whites, a conclusion confirmed by a range of other research.


The number of White people in prison has remained fairly steady since the publication of the Macpherson Report. But IRR’s analysis reveals that the number of Black people in prison has risen sharply over the last few years, from 7,946 in 1999 to 9,250 in 2002, an increase of 16 per cent. Since 1994, the number of Black people in prison has almost doubled.

Related links

IRR Briefing Paper – Race and the Criminal Justice System (26 March 2003, pdf file, 44kb)

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

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