A Reminder: the Police Are Responsible for Young Brits Not Trusting the Police
We went to Diane Abbott's meeting about stop and search laws in Parliament last night, where consensus was that the onus is on police – not young people – to start behaving like decent human beings.
"I've been stopped and searched by the police ten or 11 times," says 14-year-old Londoner, Devon. "I just try to respond with humour. I'd been around people who were smoking and the police stopped me saying, 'We can smell cannabis on you.' I just said. 'It was my cat. My cat smokes.' I think stop and search should be abolished. It's used to victimise and manipulate people."
Last night, Devon was in the Houses of Parliament as part of an open discussion hosted by Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and StopWatch, a group that campaigns for reforms of the UK's controversial stop and search laws.
The place was packed with activists, parliamentary candidates, a couple of thick-skinned police officers and lots of black and Asian teenagers wanting to ask why they still find themselves in trouble, simply for walking down the road.
All of us were there to question the benefit of the million stop and searches carried out across England and Wales between 2012 and 2013 (the last national figures available), when previous figures revealed this tactic only helped reduce crime by 0.2 percent.
It's not news that there's gross racial bias in these searches. In England and Wales last year, black people were disproportionately searched at 4.4 times the rate of white people, Asian people 1.6 times.
The most problematic of the stop and search powers are those which fall under Section 60, used when police anticipate serious violence. Section 60 allows police a blanket pass to stop and search, even without suspicion a person is carrying weapons. In some areas, black people are 29 times more likely than white people to be stopped under Section 60.
Abbott reminded us that it was stop and search used in this manner that triggered the Brixton uprising in the 1980s. She also believes that, 30 years later, anger at the procedure was one of the key factors behind the scale of the 2011 London riots.
"No single issue has poisoned relations between the police and the community more than stop and search," she said.
Bradley and Leon Fields from the Shipman Youth Centre in Newham work with CitySafe, a project that began in 2008 after the murder of teenager Jimmy Mizen. CitySafe works with local businesses to create safe havens where young people can go if they're being chased or are in danger. While the safe haven idea is working, getting young people to interact with the police and report incidents is harder. Bradley told me he's not surprised.
"I've been walking down the road with my brother and he's been stopped by the police when I haven't," he said. "We're mixed race, and it can only be because he's got slightly darker skin than me. Police were surprised when we told them we're brothers.
"We've found the biggest issue working with young people – especially young black people – is that they're refusing to engage with projects if the police are involved. We've launched stop and search workshops so that young people know their rights, but we've come to realise that stop and search is a useless tool."
Papi Shiroyakata was stopped by police on New Year's Eve of 2013 after trying to intervene when an officer used violence with another man.
"I was put on a wall and couldn't breathe, partly because my hoodie had fallen over my face and it's the biggest hoodie you've ever seen," he told me. "They put me on the ground and all I could think of was that I could finally breathe. After a few seconds, an officer had grabbed my hoodie and pulled it under my chin, and several officers were on my neck, back and head. I couldn't breathe again properly for three minutes."
Shiroyakata wasn't arrested. All of this brutality led to nothing. Unsurprisingly, he is still recovering.
"Trauma has been an unusual affliction for me," he said. "It's the loss of some self-control to be replaced by the emotions caused by those traumas [...] Even death seemed at many points a rational and consistent choice, because trauma would erupt and take over the grey space of gut feelings and assumptions about what felt like the right direction for me."
There was a strong feeling among those in attendance that knowing your rights will do jack shit during an actual stop and search. Most likely, refusing to submit will prompt accusations of cockiness and land you in more trouble. The room listened to stories of people thrown through shop windows for questioning a stop and search, being forcibly handcuffed against a wall and roughly frisked by groups of officers for no good reason, of children being subjected to strip searches.
Temi Mwale, founder of gang culture awareness group Get Outta the Gang, said we need to remember that the issue lies with the police, not with the teenagers being stopped on the street. Being clued-up about the law isn't going to save you if officers decide you look suspicious.
"It is important for people to know their rights, but we need to move the onus off young people and focus on the police," she said.
For their part, police said things are getting better. Since a wave of reforms in 2012, the London Met have reduced their overall use of stop and search by 20 percent and no-suspicion stop and search by 90 percent. It's worth noting that, in the same period, stabbings have fallen by a third and shootings by 40 percent, hardly testament to the efficacy of the power.
Nick Glynn is a serving police inspector and leads the College of Policing's work on improving stop and search. Glynn himself has been stopped and searched around 30 times while off-duty by officers from other forces.
"Anybody who denies there's a racial element to stop and search is clearly on another planet," he said.
Last year, only 0.0007 percent of people stopped and searched by the police used the complaints system. People say that, grim though it is, stop and search has become normalised. Why even bother reporting it? It can be hard to identify the officers who've searched you and, if you don't trust the police anyway, reporting an incident seems pointless.
Estelle du Boulay of the Newham Monitoring Project told me she recently worked with a man who sustained 40 injuries the police couldn't account for.
"He didn't want to put in a complaint," she said. "He didn't want any more to do with the police."
"There is no evidence that stop and search works," said StopWatch spokesperson Taherali Gulamhussein. "I hope that young people realise that when they feel racism they are not alone in feeling this."
No one was talking in platitudes. Abbott was unequivocal about what she believes to be the root of law enforcement tools like stop and search.
"The origins lie in the history of chattel slavery," she said. "We as a society still live with these attitudes: that black people – and, in particular, black men – are not fully human.
"Stop and search is unfair, it's humiliating and it's unnecessary. But aside from personal experience, stop and search is a microcosm of the attitudes of our state and police in this country."
More stuff about this kind of stuff: