Who will stand up to stop and search?
The controversial policing tactic needs to be scrapped — but who will stand up against the police’s discriminatory stop and search powers.
On Sunday 9th August, Dawn Butler, MP for Brent Central and recent contender for Labour’s Deputy Leader, was wrongly stopped by the police while she was out with a Black friend. The stop (and Butler’s treatment since) show the degree to which institutional racism is both commonplace and poorly understood in our society. In her response to the search, and in comments the previous week, Butler made clear her strong criticisms of police stop and search tactics describing the practice as ‘designed’ to be ‘discriminatory’.
It’s important to note that Butler was stopped in a traffic stop, rather than under police stop and search powers. But many of the same issues are prevalent in both scenarios. Many people can testify to being racially profiled during both traffic stops and searches on the streets — at least 1 in 4 young black men in London have been stopped since lockdown began.
The stop comes after a slew of high-profile cases of Black people being wrongly stopped, arrested or attacked by police officers. And it has highlighted how the United Kingdom’s national lockdown has involved further over-policing of Black communities.
Stop and search has been criticised since only around 17% of stop and searches result in arrests and Black people are 40 times more likely to be searched, according to figures from the Home Office. Studies (including information published by the Met themselves) have generally found that stop and search targets Black people and is ineffective, with some studies suggesting the tactic only tends to be effective at reducing non-violent drug offences. A 2018 study in the British Journal of Criminology, drawing on evidence from a ten year period, suggests that stop and search is only effective as a form of ‘social control’. Even the College of Policing has noted that if stop and search does have an impact it is likely to be ‘small’ and ‘localised’. As Matteo Tiratelli and Ben Bradford, authors of the 2018 study, write in Wired ‘there are few reasons to think that stop and search will ever help reduce violence’. The evidence from Glasgow suggests that public health approaches to youth violence are far more effective than aggressive law and order responses.
The response to Butler’s experience and her criticism of the Metropolitan police has been mixed and underlines the lack of support for tackling institutional racism in large parts of the media and among many politicians. On ITV’s This Morning, a former detective appeared to be unable to respond to Dawn Butler’s argument that only 15% of stop and searches result in further action, later invoking the spectre of ‘Black on Black crime’ — a favourite of anti-BLM commentators in the United States. The former Chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation used his position to argue that the officers involved in the stop did nothing wrong. On Talk Radio, the host suggested Dawn Butler was ‘race-baiting’ and a guest commentator accused Butler of ‘completely baseless race-baiting’ in a way that was ‘disgusting’ and ‘morally reprehensible’. The Times, on 14th August, called for the police to release the full un-clipped footage, seemingly in the hope of exonerating the Met from any accusations of institutional racism — and appearing to frame the issue as a way of pushing back against the Black Lives Matter movement.
London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, spoke of building greater trust between ‘the police and London’s black communities’ and welcomed Butler’s decisions to raise concerns about stop and search. Though he fell short of criticising stop and search himself. In 2015 Khan called for stop and search to be significantly curbed as part of his Mayoral campaign, only to reverse this position in 2018 when he announced a ‘stop and search blitz’. At the time he avoided answering questions about the disproportionate impact on BAME communities, though he noted he was in favour of body-cameras — a tactic which has failed to reduce police killings in the United States and for which there is little evidence in favour of. After Butler was stopped, the Tory Mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey used his position to strongly deny accusations of racism in policing. Bassetlaw’s new Conservative MP, Brendan Clarke-Smith, argued Butler should be ‘thankful’.
While many public figures condemned the treatment of Butler, fewer mainstream voices have taken the next step and demanded change. Numerous MPs have expressed solidarity with Butler, from all wings of the party, far fewer have endorsed her call for stop and search tactics to be scrapped. One such exception has been Bell Ribeiro-Addy’s call to scrap Section 60 — though she did not go as far to advocate scrapping stop and search altogether. Diane Abbott, writing in the Independent, argued that current levels of stop and search are ‘destroying police-community relations’ and that Cressida Dick is ‘set against admitting that there is any institutional racism in the Metropolitan police’. Dawn Butler summed the situation up well today “
Concerns about stop and search, and disproportionality more generally, have been raised for years. But after years of-so-called progress racial profiling is still entirely widespread — and when Black public figures speak out they receive abuse and have their names dragged through the mud in national media outlets and by politicians. While we need to scrap stop and search, it isn’t clear whether the problem is even being acknowledged in the first place.
 Notably, this 15% also includes a variety of non-violent drug offences and other predominantly minor offences. It begs the question, how many searches are actually to the benefit of public safety? And how many, if any at all, are to the benefit of communities of colour? Other sources appear to have the figure at around 17%.