THE report of the Lawrence inquiry singles out countrywide racial disparities in the use of stop-and-search as one of the key areas of ‘institutional racism’ in the police.
In doing so, the report does no more than to confirm what has long been widely known in the black community.
The Macpherson report goes on to condemn strongly those who seek to justify the disproportionate numbers of black people who are stopped and searched on seemingly non-racial grounds, saying that such attempts ‘simply exacerbate the climate of distrust’ that this area of police practice generates in the black community.
Yet in its recommendations the Macpherson report specifically rejects removing or limiting police powers of stop-and-search (which have recently been extended), on the grounds of their ‘genuine usefulness in the prevention and detection of crime’. Instead, it recommends that the current provisions for recording stops and searches (under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act) should be extended to all stops (including so-called ‘voluntary’ ones) and that it should be compulsory for the police to give all persons stopped a written record of the reasons. Currently, reasons need only be given on arrest. Police forces should be required to publicise these new requirements, the report adds, and to monitor the use of stop-and-search, including by individual officers.
Managing stop and search
Will such measures do anything to curb the police abuse of stop-and-search? Already the law provides that failure by the police to make a record of a stop does not render it unlawful or prevent the use of evidence gained against the suspect. It is unlikely that the mere threat of disciplinary proceedings will be sufficient to stop the police continuing to use unrecorded stops and searches to harass black people.
Twenty or thirty years ago, ‘word-of-mouth’ job recruitment was widespread in Britain. No doubt such practices were seen as an economical way to carry out recruitment, but because of the racially divided society in which they operated, they almost inevitably resulted in racial discrimination. Today such recruitment is widely acknowledged not just as inherently racist, but also as ineffective, in that it does not result in choosing the best available candidate for any job.
Stop-and-search is similarly seen as a convenient method of policing, especially in inner city and black areas. But given the nature of the police as an institution and the society in which it operates, stop-and-search is bound to operate in a racially discriminatory manner.
Nor is it a very effective way of policing. We know that the vast majority of people stopped are found to be innocent of any crime, with only 12% of stops of black people (and 3% of whites) resulting in arrests. Overall, stop-and-search accounts for only 11% of arrests nationally. We also know from Home Office research that black people arrested following a stop-and-search are less likely to be charged than whites.
It is not enough to manage stop-and-search better through record-keeping and monitoring. Until legal restrictions are placed on the police’s use of these powers and on any evidence gained from them individual police officers will continue to employ what they see as a convenient way of controlling black youth.