Earlier this month, Boris Johnson revealed the next string to his crime-fighting bow; a country-wide extension to Stop-and-Search procedures.
Stop-and-Search – which refers to Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act – is a practice which gives certain police officers the power to stop a person whom they believe to be a threat to public safety, search them for a weapon, and make an arrest if they find one. Johnson’s current plans revolve primarily around tackling knife crime, which he cites as a national epidemic.
The practice in its current format has been rolled out across the UK in various phases and linked closely to racial profiling and discrimination. Since its birth in 2001, black and minority ethnic (BME) individuals have been disproportionately targeted.
In 2017-18, the disparity was the highest it’s been in recent years, with black individuals nine and a half times as likely to be targeted as white individuals in England in Wales. Notably, this figure has been growing on an upward trend, rising from eight times as likely in 2016-17 and four times as likely in 2015-16.
While advocates of the scheme have argued that this disparity is rooted in the fact that crime is more rife in BME communities, the arrest rate for possession of a weapon after a stop and search remains more or less equal for black and white individuals – swaying by no more than eight per cent each year.
Human rights groups like Liberty have criticised the use of Stop-and-Search, arguing that it creates too much scope for racial bias and profiling.
Worryingly, Johnson’s plans are likely to widen this scope even further; taking a two-fold approach to extending the practice which simultaneously gives more power and freedom to officers. Firstly, according to his proposals, more power would be given to individual officers; inspecting officers will no longer need to have their decision to stop and search someone authorised by a higher-ranking officer. Secondly, the reason for which an individual can be targeted would also be more subjective. As it stands, officers can search anyone if they believe that “serious violence will take place” or that “a person is carrying a dangerous object or offensive weapon”. But, if Johnson’s proposals are implemented, officers will be able to target an individual if they believe either “serious violence may take place” or that “a person may be carrying a dangerous object or offensive weapon”.
By widening the parameters for Stop-and-Search in these ways, more onus is placed on the decisions and opinions of individual officers, who will no longer need to believe that violence or crime is absolutely certain or have their decisions authorised by anyone else. This opens up the possibility for more prejudice, and ultimately, further profiling of BME communities in Britain.
According to a 2018 study conducted by StopWatch, for many members of the young black community in high-crime areas, “there is a learned distrust, developed as a result of those negative experiences of being stopped and searched” and that, as a result, police are “marked as agents to be avoided”.
There is a real concern that the damage which has already been done to relationships between Britain’s BME communities and the police could be made even worse with further extensions to Stop-and-Search procedure. This would mean that members of these communities would be less likely to go to the police or authorities if they had been the victim or witness of a crime.
During the newly coined ‘People’s PMQ’s’ this August – hosted via a Facebook live-stream –Johnson cited previous rollouts of the Stop-and-Search procedure as the reason the “murder rate was more or less reduced by 50 per cent.”
However, there is no real evidence to back up this claim. In 2018, the University of Oxford’s criminology department released an in-depth academic study which analysed 10 years’ of the procedure’s use in London and concluded that “claims that [Stop-and-Search] is an effective way to control and deter offending seem misplaced”.
Equally, in the Home Office’s own summaries of previous Stop-and-Search rollouts, there is also little evidence to show that the procedure reduces violent crime in any significant way. For example, in its analysis of Operation Blunt 2 – one of the largest rollouts – the Home Office concluded that “no discernible crime-reducing effects” were found.
Any extension to the Stop-and-Search policy is likely to be detrimental to Britain’s BME communities, and particularly young, black men and boys. Ultimately, it is set to increase distrust between such individuals and their families and the police, which would risk victims and witnesses of crime from reaching out and result in less crime being reported and necessary support being given.
While there is no real evidence to prove that Stop-and-Search does more good than harm, any plans to extend it – particularly in ways which could so easily exacerbate racial profiling – should be reconsidered.
Luna Williams is political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers which offers free advice and support to asylum-seekers, refugees and victims of trafficking and abuse.