Communities afflicted by violence need care, not criminalisation. But our new Prime Minister is more interested in playing to bigoted populist sentiments than in supporting BAME citizensby Zainab Asunramu / August 2, 2019 / Leave a comment
Black, Asian, and ethnic minority people “are suffering not from the overuse of stop-and-search… but from the potential underuse of it.” Those are the words of the Conservative MP for Shipley, Philip Davies, during a Westminster Hall debate on stop and search operations during my second week as a parliamentary assistant last May. He went on to say “when it comes to the most serious offence of all—murder—it is clear that black people, and in particular black males, are far more likely to be victims. They are also more likely to be murderers.” He currently sits on the Women and Equalities Select Committee.
I am reminded of this debate a year on, when not 24 hours after being handed the keys to Number 10, Boris Johnson announced he would relax stop and search restrictions for police officers, allowing them to search any person in the street if they have “reasonable grounds” to suspect they are carrying illegal or stolen property.
His decision comes after former Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s controversial move to expand the police powers last year. Research showed that black people were “40 times” more likely to be stopped and searched than white people in England and Wales. Recent analysis from the Guardian illustrated that for the majority of black people stopped showed no evidence of wrongdoing.
Evidence that increasing stop and search can inhibit violent crime is questionable. A report by the College of Policing on whether increased levels of stop and search prevents crime concludes that increased powers were only “occasionally followed by very slightly lower rates of crime,” while noting that these correlations were “inconsistent” and “weak.”
So why would our new Prime Minister, already known for his history of racist comments, choose to relax restrictions around stop and search as one of his very first measures?
A criminal law barrister told me that Johnson’s decision was a case of “political grandstanding,” urging the prime minister to instead “engage with the communities most affected by violent crime to identify viable solutions for dealing with this [youth violence] crisis.”
“Stop and search,” she added, “does little in the way of detecting real crime.” The environment of mistrust caused by stop and search harms communities. In a 2018 report on the police powers by StopWatch UK, MP for Tottenham David Lammy wrote, “the disproportionate use of stop and search is not only born out of, but also perpetuates, a paranoid and generalised suspicion toward an entire community.”
He wasn’t wrong. Katrina Ffrench, CEO of StopWatch UK, a coalition campaigning against the disproportionate use of stop and search, said that “with ethnic disparities worsening and a woeful lack of regard by the new PM on the impact that stop and search can have on individuals and more widely over policed communities, StopWatch has no choice but to continue advocating for evidence based approaches to policing.”
North London community activist Andre Wallace remarked that Johnson’s decision “shows that the government has no intention of rehabilitation and care”—its commitments to expanding stop and search are part of “an ideological decision to alienate, remove and exclude.”
“He was only 14”
I have listened on in horror and sadness as friends have recounted experiences of being stopped and searched. As they spoke, their pain was palpable. They felt violated. Their crime? Simply walking to work, walking home from school, or travelling to meet other friends.
A 60-year-old carer from South East London, described the time he was pulled over by police who had been tailing him for 5 minutes. “They pulled me over and asked me if I owned the car. I said yes. They then asked me what my job was.” After telling them he was a carer, the police suggested that he must have other means of income to be able to afford the car. “I mean, it was a Volkswagen. I was incredibly insulted and irritated. To them, a black man could only afford a car if he was a drug dealer.”
A city worker told me he had been stopped and searched numerous times. He expressed, “there’s no such thing as a good encounter” with police regarding stop and search.
A close friend remembered the time she witnessed someone she knew being stopped and searched. “It was the guy I fancied at the time. And I remember how fearful he was, as he was only 14. For him being stopped and then searched was humiliating.”
Stop and search “does not work”
Jake Wiafe, a young black YouTuber, told me he felt that Johnson’s decision showed a typical response to concerns around serious youth violence. “Stop and search does not work,” he observed: “we have to bear in mind that when [people] visualise young offenders, they’re not going imagine their own kids, they’re going to imagine a kid who looks like me so it’s much easier to treat them as a criminal who can be harassed by the police rather than a young person who has been failed by society.”
Of course, it isn’t just black communities that are disproportionately affected by the police powers. In a debate on stop and search in parliament last May, Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West pointed to Section 7 of the Terrorism Act, which gives police a power to stop, search and hold individuals at ports, airports and international rail stations.
The law, Shah notes, disproportionately affects British Muslims. I spoke to Zohra Khaku, Director of Muslim Youth Helpline, who added “young Muslims are depicted negatively in the media, leading to young Muslims who ‘look Muslim’ by virtue of being Asian, having a beard or wearing a headscarf, being unfairly targeted. The relaxing of stop and search powers could [lead to] further criminalisation of young British Muslims.”
A proper way forward, says Zohra, would involve increased funding “for other causes of violent crime, such as socio-economic issues, educational attainment, poor mental health, weak family ties, lack of early intervention and high unemployment.”
Unfortunately for BAME communities in the UK, Boris’s plan to relax stop and search is only just the beginning. He has already shown us that he cares more for playing to populist sentiments on racism, sexism and bigotry than addressing the concerns of those he hurts and offends.
BAME communities will continue bear the brunt of the Government’s inclination to prioritise punishment over care. To protect ourselves under a Johnson government, it is imperative that people in such communities know their rights.