A man being arrested after a stop and search in London. Photos by Tom Johnson
A while back the police in the UK announced that they were going to crack down on middle-class drug use, but that turned out to be a pain in the ass, so they went back to bullying the poor. A new unpublished report from the drug policy charity Release confirms that the London cops are more likely to arrest the poor on drug charges.
Unreleased figures obtained by researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) reveal that those in the highest socio-economic class—people like bankers, doctors, and lawyers—are three times more likely to be let off with a caution for drug offenses than the unemployed. And of the near 200,000 people stopped and searched for drug possession by London's Metropolitan Police last year, almost all of those punished—93 percent—were from lower socio-economic groups.
I spoke to Inspector Nick Glynn, Vice President of the National Black Police Association, about why the working class and unemployed were being unfairly targeted for drug shakedowns. “These statistics will be no surprise to those from lower social backgrounds,” he said. “If you aren’t well off—if you’re young, from an urban area, black, or Asian—your chances of getting stopped by the police for drugs are much higher.”
When Sir Robert Peel founded the Met he based it on a set of pretty egalitarian principles, one being: “The police are the public and the public are the police.” So why are London’s cops going after the working class and unemployed when they’re well aware that the wealthy do just as many drugs as anyone else?
“Some areas are perceived by the police as being fertile feeding grounds,” said Glynn. “There are places police officers know people will go to smoke cannabis, so they’ll always go there and search them. It’s all about picking the low-hanging fruit.”
The driving force behind much of this is the war on drugs, more specifically the incentives given to officers who can track down people hiding ten bags in their change pockets. Even though cannabis use has been falling in the UK for the last decade, the number of people caught and punished for possessing weed has risen. That’s because stopping and searching people on suspicion of cannabis possession is one of the easiest ways to achieve good clear-up rates, and good clear-up rates make the bosses look like they’re doing their jobs.
Of course, this can be hugely detrimental to policing London effectively; in terms of “cleared up” crime statistics, a cannabis warning is equal to solving a rape case. Officers with a good clear-up rate are more likely to be chosen for the specialist training courses that can advance their careers, so why bother seeking out dangerous crimes when you can fill your quota with bud busts?
Some weed found in a car in London during a mass stop and search operation.
That isn’t to say that every officer is forsaking proper policing for easy arrests—there are plenty of good cops doing good work—but when you consider that cannabis possession has a 98 percent clear-up rate, it’s clear that somebody’s realized that busting stoners is much simpler than solving serious crimes.
It’s already well known—but no less depressing—that this style of policing ends up creating self-fulfilling prophecies. The more police monitor certain social groups, the more marginalized they become. The more severely those groups are marginalized, the more pissed off they get and the more the police step up their reaction.
Dan Silver is a director at the Social Action and Research Foundation, a charity that investigates poverty. He told me that this situation is “part of a global pattern in which social security and positive interactions with the state are being withdrawn, while at the same time the punitive hand of the state is becoming more severe.”
As the welfare state shrinks, the police state grows. But surely not every single police officer is becoming a maniacal, classist tyrant—there must be some from working-class backgrounds who are aware of how demonization has predictable but horrible long-term results on a community.
Inspector Glynn isn’t so sure. He told me that our already remote police force are becoming increasingly detached from the working class. “If you look at the demographics of police officers—especially those at mid to high levels, who make the decisions about policing—a lot would call themselves middle class,” he said. “There’s an element of looking down their noses at some people. It’s a kind of institutional classism.”
A police officer in Brixton, London.
One problem is that the number of Met Police officers who actually live where they work is dwindling, meaning those working in the city now have less investment in the communities they're serving. In fact, according to Glynn, the issue has become so pronounced that there’s now a Met recruitment drive to find new officers who actually live within the boundaries of the M25 highway that surrounds London. “If you live outside London, there’s not that sense of ownership—you aren’t part of the same public,” said Glynn. “They commute in, deal with the Londoners and go back home to the countryside.”
According to Glynn, the increased distancing of police from their public—and the bad attitudes this appears to foster—has parallels with the case of Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper seller who died after being violently shoved to the ground by police officer Simon Harwood in the midst of a London demonstration in 2009. “The Tomlinson case was a graphic example of this attitude,” he said. “He was treated like dirt. There was a dismissal of him as an individual because of the way he looked.”
Daniel Bear, a Canadian criminologist who was embedded with the Met Police for more than 500 hours between 2010 and 2011—and co-authored Release and LSE’s last report—told me that the police he hung around with divided society into two distinct tribes: taxpayers and non-taxpayers.
“Many of these officers saw a direct correlation between being poor and a willingness to break the law,” he said. “Poor people were there to be policed, and rich people were there to be protected. People they perceived as leeching off society or not contributing by paying taxes were not to be trusted. Those with two kids, a dual income and a nice home were their kind of people; they were there to be helped. The problem is that often this distinction was only based on what people look like.”
A London police officer during a mass stop and search operation.
Fortunately, police officers can’t use the way that people look as reasonable legal grounds to stop and search them, but they can use the way that people behave as a justification. “I saw so many arbitrary stop and searches,” Bear told me. “One officer boasted that he could find grounds to stop and search anyone in the borough—the way someone leans on a car bonnet, the way someone walks…”
In April, Home Secretary Theresa May warned police to rein in their use of stop and search. But calls from Release to stop cannabis possession being used as a way for police to hit targets were ignored. Niamh Eastwood, Release’s executor director, told me that the best way to solve the problem would be to decriminalize drugs.
“Our laws allow for the mass searching of particular parts of the population,” she said. “If the home secretary really wants to address the negative impact of stop and search, her first step should be to reform the drug laws and end the use of criminal sanctions for possession of drugs.”
There are, of course, cops who care about the communities they serve. But the longer police are allowed to fill their quotas with petty drug offenses, the more marginalized certain social groups will become. And this certainly isn’t a good situation to be heading toward; police should be preventing division, not encouraging it.