Stop and Search: Race and the Politics of Suspicion

banksy-searchStop and search at Notting Hill carnival

BETWEEN me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

– W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (1905)

Video from excellent activist group Stop-Watch.

The political pause over Stop and Search

The riots of 2011, and the research that was conducted afterwards, have had multiple political effects. Of these, one of the most important has been a clearer public exposure of the deep animosities generated by police use of stop and search powers against young people and especially those of black and Asian backgrounds. Whilst the idea that stop and search causes animosity is not news to anyone interested in British race relations or human rights, it has unusually become the focus of increasing political attention. For many years the Independent Police Complaints Commission has warned that the use of stop and search powers may be being exercised in a discriminatory and unaccountable way, and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission have been investigating police forces on this front.  Yet it was only following the riots that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe began a large overhaul of the use of the power in London in 2012. Following this, parliamentary briefings were issued which pointed to the broader ineffectiveness and abuse of the powers, and the Home Office has launched a consultation into the use of stop and search. In launching this consultation, equality-sceptic Home Secretary Theresa May acknowledged, in very measly terms, the discriminatory ways in which these powers had been exercised:

The official statistics show that, if someone is from a black or minority ethnic background, they are up to seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than if they are white. Now we should not rush to conclusions about those statistics, but everybody involved in policing has a duty to make sure that nobody is ever stopped just on the basis of their skin colour or ethnicity. The law is clear that in normal circumstances, stop and search should only ever be used where there is a reasonable suspicion of criminality—and that is how it should be. I am sure we have all been told stories by constituents and members of the public about what it is like to be a young, law-abiding black man who has been stopped and searched by the police on more than one occasion. If anybody thinks it is sustainable to allow that to continue, with all its consequences for public confidence in the police, they need to think again.

House of Commons Debate, 2 July 2013

The recent release of evidence about the use of stop and search by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has been fairly damning (full report here). The researchers visited all 43 Police Forces in England and Wales, surveyed nearly 20,000 members of the public and 391 people who had been stopped and searched. They also reviewed a sample of more than 200 stop and search records in each police force. In over 25% of cases, no reason was recorded for why an individual was stopped and searched, in clear contravention of the legal guidelines. On average, only 9% of searches resulted in arrest. Chief Police Officers on the whole are not interested in monitoring or ensuring supervision of the legality and effectiveness of these powers. Moreover, and unsurprisingly, there is a huge gulf between police reporting of incidents and public impressions of searches. Only 13% of those stopped agreed that the police acted reasonably and 15% that they had been treated with respect throughout the process. Only 40% knew why they had been stopped. The statistic for black and Asian people being stopped seven times as much as white people goes up to 25 times when one looks at powers exercised under section 60 of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

The picture that has emerged, then, from the most conservative and official channels indicates clearly that stop and search powers have been used systematically in an illegal and often discriminatory way across a range of police forces. This should be getting much bigger headlines than it is, but there is nonetheless some momentum behind it. The Home Office’s consultation will close on Tuesday 24th September. In terms of the evidence already in the public domain, it seems clear that there will be a substantive political push from the Government itself for decreasing violation of stop and search rules, fewer searches overall, and more oversight of their legality. Indeed, such changes are underway in many forces, and are, as far as they go, to be welcomed. Yet these procedural tweaks need to be made in the context of a bigger political shift and awakening around racism and democracy in state-society relations – a conversation which our political classes will undoubtedly avoid, but one which deserves more attention. In particular, several thornier problems need addressing.

Police corruption, collusion, silence and complicity about rule breaking in the context of ‘Total Policing’

Again, this is not news to anyone interested in policing. Whilst there are doubtless a large number of police officers who are well-trained, sensitive and honest, there seems to be a substantial problem around whistle-blowing in police forces, meaning that those abusing their roles are not held to account. One of the most disturbing pieces of news emerging from the riots was not just that a riot policeman was recorded racially abusing someone in the back of the police van, but that a number of his colleagues were present who claim not to have heard any of this. Further instances of police fabricating evidence and committing racist abuse can still be found, even if the situation is better than three decades ago. In this instance again, there is an automatic and basic collusion between officers rather than any attempt to investigate police abuse. The finding of the HMIC report that Chief Police Officers took few steps to investigate the abuse of stop and search powers despite widespread public concerns over racism is emblematic of the non-transparent and non-accountable institutional culture in the Police within its leadership. So even if most police officers are not racist, as long as they continue to protect their colleagues rather than backing those people facing racist abuse and discrimination, the problems of institutional racism identified by MacPherson will not be solved. This is a more basic problem about how the police understand their relationship with the people they are meant to be serving – doubtless this kind of internal policing is only consistently effected with pressure at all levels to keep quiet about problems and abuses. It is extremely rare to hear of police willing to testify against each other. Yet, if the culture of silence is to be broken, there must be more support for those prepared to blow the whistle.

Yet, rather than encouraging more transparency and accountability, the rhetoric about the role of the police in society is becoming increasingly authoritarian in flavour. The ‘Total Policing’ / ‘war on crime’ slogan of the Metropolitan Police is not an especially reassuring one in this context. ‘Total Policing’, and its attendant tools of surveillance, search powers and kettling are better understood as tools of counter-insurgency and social control than the facilitation of peaceful and safe democratic public life.  Indeed, it is noteworthy that the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the stop and search powers which the Government introduced under terror legislation were struck down on human rights grounds of over-extension and unaccountability. Yet anti-terror legislation and public order legislation now look increasingly similar in terms of the powers they give police and the curtailing of suspect rights.

Societal racism, humiliation and the politics of suspicion

By far the biggest difference in the accounts of stop and search are between those regularly subjected to it and those who are not. The political discourses above have unsurprisingly sanitised the experience as a general inequity and cause for ‘lack of confidence in the police’. Those regularly subjected to it have emphasised over and again that it is a form of public and personal humiliation, both in terms of the fact of being searched and the manner of the search. In this video, the person stopped, apparently only for ringing his friend’s doorbell and with no other grounds for suspicion, says he “feels like an animal”.

Frantz Fanon articulated the pain and anger of what it means to be the racialised subject of a racist social order. Racism proceeds to de-humanise through ‘epidermalising’. This fate is to have one’s existence as a human subject evaluated through the gaze which fixes meaning to the hue of one’s skin and the pathologies which are ascribed to it. One is never allowed to forget, or transcend, this fixation of the skin; one’s humanity is in this sense always amputated, reduced, painful, contested. For those regularly stopped by the police on what they perceive to be the basis of their skin colour, it is every time a test of their humanity – a test to see if they will tolerate the examination, or whether in resisting such a glare through anger will themselves offer the justification for the stop. Passing the examination offers only a temporary reprieve until the next inquisition which can be reliably anticipated – even if defences can be occasionally mounted:

This is because racism of this type – the type that goes on in British cities, towns and villages, is more a politics of suspicion and interrogation than it is of explicit abuse and discrimination, although the latter of course happen. Having to consistently prove your legality, obedience and humanity because you are not white is the fulcrum of this system. This can be understood more effectively when contrasted with the position of those who, by virtue of social privilege of race and class, are not in the position of having to defend their humanity or innocence on a regular basis but can simply expect to be treated with respect, if not deference much of the time. Indeed, such people might often be let off or indulged the odd infraction. But that this privilege is restricted to only certain strata of society is a key marker of how our present social order is heavily and systematically racialised. Having more detailed information and understanding of how these inequalities work themselves out comparatively – a critical analysis of privilege – is fundamental to making sense of phenomena like stop and search.

De-racialising the polity

Whilst it is encouraging that politicians are starting to slowly get to grips with stop and search as a procedure, many of us – and I mean those concerned about social injustice – are not doing enough to attack the racialised politics of suspicion and the culture of total policing that underpins stop and search. We must keep working to understand and to speak about the mechanisms of discrimination and de-humanisation that particular communities are subjected to, in particular through recording the experiences themselves. One of the most encouraging developments on this front was the production of a Stop and Search App which has been reportedly effective in helping those targeted fight back against the process, and with figures like Doreen Lawrence now in the Lords, these issues are getting some amplification and scrutiny. Yet, it is still a shame for a supposedly non-racist democracy that Du Bois’ question – How does it feel to be a problem? can still resonate so strongly today.

7 thoughts on “Stop and Search: Race and the Politics of Suspicion

  1. Excellent post Meera! thank you for it. we can add that right now the inquiry into the Mark Duggan execution is ongoing, yet no media coverage. The other side to stop and search in terms of a racist CJS is the death of young black men in prison or at hands of police. by no means only young black men, but significantly overrepresented. So it is about suspicion and also about killing too. proper disposable lives.

    We also need to understand the extent of surveillance of young people – especially black and brown – from poor areas: there is literally no place for them to congregate, they are told to move on in the estates and indeed some estates effectively police outside space to this extent. is it any surprise that these youth feel – to paraphrrase/parody david starkey – .that they are living in another country?



  2. Excellent post Meera! The opening quote is chilling in that it feels like so little has changed since it was written. Here in Australia we are especially struggling with racism towards new immigrants- and it seems like the levels of condoned and socially acceptable racism rise each day in the name of concern over security and the ‘good’ of the neighbourhood


  3. Also, just want to draw attention to StopWatch’s response to the consultation, which is really on the ball:

    “Over the last three months, StopWatch has collected perceptions, experiences and recommendations from its members as well as attended and supported consultation events across the country. Today, we submit an 80 page report that reviews the law and practice on stop and search and makes wide-ranging recommendations for change.

    StopWatch found:

    • Police don’t understand what stop and search is for
    • No convincing evidence that stop and search is effective
    • Many stop and searches are groundless and unlawful
    • Unnecessary intrusion into liberty and privacy
    • Alarming fact of children subject to street searches
    • Communities do not distinguish between the different types of stop-searches and all are of concern
    • Stop and search for drugs is the leading cause of disproportionality for reasonable suspicion stop and searches
    • Strong evidence of damage to community trust and confidence
    • Lack of oversight of all powers (including stops, traffic stops and strip searches)
    • Lack of leadership and supervision

    StopWatch proposes:

    • Radical reform of all police-public encounters – police should relate first to people as citizens not suspects
    • Radical reform of stop search powers (including stops, traffic stops and all stop and search powers) and reduce their use
    • Eliminate racial disparities in stop and search use
    • Repeal section 60 and Schedule 7 – stop and search should never be conducted without reasonable suspicion
    • Restrict PACE searches to where there is genuine ‘reasonable suspicion’
    • Regulate traffic stops and strip searches
    • Stop and searches for low level drug possession should be deprioritised
    • Police leaders work with the community to ensure powers are used lawfully, effectively and fairly”

    Click to access StopWatch_consultation_final.pdf


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