With the publication last week of The review of policing by Ronnie Flanagan, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, the government is proposing another extension of stop and search powers beyond the requirement of ‘reasonable suspicion’.
The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, has announced that, from April, the powers allowing officers to conduct searches will be extended in areas where gun or knife crime is suspected – which amounts to most urban areas in England, especially those where Black and Minority Ethnic communities are concentrated.
The majority of stops and searches are carried out under the so-called PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984) powers which require officers to only carry out a search where there is a reasonable suspicion of a criminal offence. This requirement was introduced following the abolition of the ‘sus’ laws which had allowed police officers to carry out stops and searches in an entirely arbitrary way – a practice which had been a significant factor in the riots of the early 1980s.
The publication of the Macpherson report in 1999 led to a significant reduction in the use of PACE stop and search. It recognised that there was a real issue of disproportionality in the use of the power against Black and Minority Ethnic communities and recommended that all stops be documented by officers to monitor their use with regard to different ethnic groups.
However, the 1990s also saw these trends for greater accountability undermined by pressure for new legislation which allowed for stops and searches to be carried out even without reasonable suspicion – under the pretext of threats of public disorder or terrorism. These new powers were meant to be used only in specially designated zones and only for a set period of time. But, in practice, new powers under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 were used much more widely. In particular, from early 2001, the Metropolitan police deemed the whole London area to be under a permanent terrorist threat, allowing officers relative freedom to use the Section 44 powers on the basis of ‘unreasonable suspicions’, such as a person’s perceived ethnic or religious group.
Meanwhile, as the political force of the Macpherson report has ebbed over recent years, there has been less pressure to reduce the use of PACE powers and level their disproportionate targeting of young Black and Asian men.
The combined result has been a steady increase in the use of all kinds of stop and search powers and an increasing disparity in the numbers of White and Black men affected by them. In the year 2005/6, 878,153 stops and searches were carried out under PACE, the highest figure since 1998/9. Black people were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than Whites, and Asians twice as likely. While some police forces outside London reduced the total number of stops and searches carried out between 2004 and 2006, the number of Black people being stopped and searched remained relatively constant in these areas.
While campaigners have been calling for these increasing disparities to be tackled, there is now another push from ministers and opposition leaders to further diminish the requirement of ‘reasonable suspicion’ – which will surely lead to more people being targeted simply because of their race or religion. The government has sought to reassure critics by saying that any new powers will be restricted to designated zones. But past experience – especially of the Section 44 anti-terrorist powers – tells us that such restrictions are, in practice, quickly put to one side. Moreover, the zones where police consider knife and gun crime to be specific problems are likely to be areas with large numbers of Black residents. Whereas today Black people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people, in coming years expect that disparity to increase to ten times or more.
Read an IRR News article on: Racial profiling and anti-terror stop and search