Stop and search: 'Who feels it, knows it'

Mark Blake
Thursday, 22 November 2018

The Home Secretary’s speech to the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) adds to the bitterly disappointing and punitive narrative around the rise in violent crime. The challenge of serious youth violence requires politicians to seriously contemplate the effectiveness of current failed approaches and to have the courage to challenge the conventional wisdoms of perpetual punishment that our failing criminal justice system is built upon.

Bob Marley was the master of lyrical poignancy that would stay lodged in the memory for generations. One of his classic one-liners was 'who feels it knows it'.

The issue of stop and search and particularly the dichotomy between the conventional wisdoms that dominate our national discourse around crime and punishment and lead us to the` natural’ assumption that more stop and search’s of target groups (e.g. young black boys) will reduce serious violence epitomises the marked point Marley makes. Of course there is an opposing view to this narrative which unfortunately gets very little air time in the conventional spaces within the mainstream media where these debates play out.

This, of course, is largely due to the demographic of those groups and communities on the receiving end of stop and search as a Police power and the huge inequalities and power in-balances in our society this exposes. I will attempt to articulate a counter narrative on this issue which is that stop and search is ineffective and is contributing to the deterioration in police and community relationships that can protect our society and the most vulnerable groups, particularly children from serious youth violence.

My specific concern is around the experiences of children and particularly black and minority ethnic children in relation to their encounters of policing. Last year Black Training and Enterprise Group (BTEG) with the Children's Rights Alliance England wrote to Sir Tom Winsor, the HM Chief Inspector of Constabularies, requesting he launch a review into the treatment and experience of black and minority children in the area of policing.

Some of the statistics we forwarded to Sir Tom with regards to the Met Police are highlighted below:

  • Stop and search – although use has fallen overall, the tactic is used disproportionately on BAME children in London with over half (54 per cent) of all stop and searches on children in 2016 being of BAME children (with the disparity starkest in relation to Black boys and young men who accounted for 37 per cent of all stops and searches)
  • In 2016 at least 540 children in London were subjected to `more thorough’ or `strip searches’ with BAME children accounting for 71 per cent of these intrusive searches
  • In 2016, 8275 children were detained overnight in Metropolitcal Police custody. Nearly two thirds of these children were from BAME backgrounds (with Black children accounting for 41 per cent of all children detained overnight).
  • In 2008 after Tasers were introduced, Metropolitan Police officers used them on children nine times. Yet in the first nine months of 2016 alone Tasers were used 118 times (including being fired five times). Nearly 70 per cent of these uses in 2016 were on BAME children
  • From December 2016 to July 2017, the Metropolitan Police conducted an initial pilot of the use of spit hoods in five custody suites. Since then a trial of the devices was rolled out to all custody suites in London. By the end of September 2017 there had been at least seven uses of spit hoods on children (the youngest child being 15 years old.) Of these, four uses were on BAME children.

The concept of 'trust and confidence’ is a phrase that has become part of the language of our policing and public authority bureaucracies. However, it very rarely engages with the underlying causes of low levels of trust amongst black and ethnic minority communities, particularly young people.

But of course statistics only show part of the problem. They don’t un-wrap the very human experiences of the children affected by early negative contact with the police. A recent report from Stopwatch (a coalition of academics and community organisations campaigning for the reform of stop and search powers) on the Met Police’s gangs matrix delves deep in to the traumatising  experiences of children and young people routinely subjected from a young age to this model of policing.

David Lammy MP in a recent newspaper article gave us a small glimpse of this world sharing his experiences of being stopped and searched in Tottenham as a child. As a parent I know it is a harrowing ordeal for a young child.

Anyone involved in the current policy dialogues around youth violence (as I am) will be familiar with the term `adverse childhood experiences’. ACE’s (as our public authority officials have shortened them to), are the pointers in a young person’s life that may lead them to be more susceptible to entry into the youth justice system or engaging in serious youth violence (e.g. exclusion from school, parental breakup etc.).

I would suggest the points I raise in this article accounting for the experiences of too many black and minority ethnic children with regards to policing certainly need to be added to the ACE’s chronology.  This may be something the NPCC may wish to contemplate as they take on new shared statutory responsibilities for local safeguarding responsibilities from next year.

So back to Bab Marley’s lyrics - I would suggest that if the model for policing that is being applied to black and minority ethnic children in areas such as London were applied across the country, the response of our politicians would be very different. Falling into the failed comfort zone of more and more punitive measures may play to the majority audience but it will not address serious youth violence and down plays the serious risks and long term damage to community cohesion.

Mark Blake is a Project Development Officer at Black Training and Enterprise Group