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 Continue reading