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Racism behind stop and search

Young Londoners and the Met Police - a decade on from MacPherson Report Cat Smith asks what's changed

The sentencing of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the racially motivated killing of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence in south London in 1993 has been justice long awaited. Through working with anti-racism campaigns like Unite Against Fascism and Hope Not Hate I've always admired Doreen Lawrence's tireless campaign to see justice for her son's murder despite countless setbacks through no fault of her own. The Lawrence case is just one racially motivated crime on the Metropolitan Police's books but it is one which has recently attracted praise for the force which has been determined to make amends for the initial hopelessly bungled investigation and the lengthy delay before the Lawrence family was finally able to witness justice at least partially done.

The murder of Stephen Lawrence provoked, in the years that followed, wide-ranging and necessary analyses of police practice, particularly the force's relations with ethnic minority communities. The MacPherson report of 1999 concluded that the Met was institutionally racist and identified the use of stop and search by the police as a great source of tension. Of particular concern was the disproportionate use of the powers on members of ethnic minorities especially young African-Caribbean men under Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

More than a decade on from the MacPherson report and almost two decades on from Stephen Lawrence's murder what has changed for young people's relationships with the police in London? As a young white woman in London I rarely interact with the Met Police with the exception of demos against student fees and with UK Uncut, and it's fair to say relations then are tense, but on a day-to-day basis there is no interaction.

Jyoti Bhojani who is the National Black Asian and Minority Ethnic Officer for Young Labour tipped me off to look at the numbers behind the use of Section 60: "All the statistics show that BME communities are disproportionately stopped and searched. It is about time, that we saw an improvement in these statistics, and police services respected basic human rights and discrimination law. Achieving this, would be one step towards rebuilding the frayed relationship between the police and BME communities".

If Black, you are at least six times more likely than a white person to be stopped and searched by the police in England and Wales. If Asian, you are twice as likely. Research by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the London School of Economics found 41.6 stops for every 1,000 Black people under Section 60 compared with 1.6 stops for every 1,000 white people, making Black people 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched. Beyond the numbers and the routine humiliation, the anxieties provoked by stop and search work as a powerful symbol of the dysfunctional relationship between the police and certain parts of our society. It is important the police are seen to be effective, guided by intelligence and information rather than stereotyping and prejudice. Sadly evidence indicates that in some forces, including the Met, that may not always be the case.

I asked a cross-section of my Black, Asian and minority ethnic friends for their experiences and explained I was writing this piece for Chartist. I was struck by a comment made by a Black friend who told me although she didn't have any personal experiences it wasn't uncommon for her brother, also of Nigerian heritage, to be stopped and searched by the police. It was just one of those things that happened.

Looking around the web for other young people's accounts of what it's like to be stopped and searched I was alarmed to read the following from a young person as part of a youth work project with the Runnymede Trust:

"I've been stopped and searched twice. Once I just got stopped, the other time it was two females. But it does actually make you feel like a criminal. When I get stopped and searched I'm thinking, 'You're feeling my trousers, man! You're feeling my pockets, you don't need to do that!' So I actually feel like a criminal. And I actually didn't know this, but every time a police officer stops and searches someone, they have to give a slip. But they always lie and say it takes half an hour, (all agree) 'It's gonna take half an hour for me to fill out this slip, do you still want it?' And most kids are like, 'I don't want it.' But every time they fill out a slip it goes on their record to how many people they've stopped and searched, how many black people they've stopped and searched. But I never knew that. So maybe that's why they don't want to give out the slips. Maybe a police officer could be racist, and you could find how many black people, how many Asians, and you could find that out."

A further concern is that five of the 10 forces most likely to use stop-and-search powers disproportionately against Black people no longer record the ethnic make-up of the people they stop. Currently the Met Police still record this data. Since last year, that is left it to the discretion of police services. The reasoning is that it will reduce bureaucracy and release police hours for other work. More than half the police forces in England and Wales intend to stop recording ethnic and other details, contrary to MacPherson's recommendation that monitoring is vital to building trust and confidence.

In the absence of reliable monitoring, sound statistics, transparency and rigorous evaluations, it is inevitable that rumour, suspicion and hostility will fester with potentially disastrous outcomes. It happened in the Brixton riots in 1981 and research by the Guardian and the London School of Economics found that anger at the police was a major fuel for the riots last year, with 86% of rioters citing policing as an important or very important factor in causing the disorder.

This was supported by Zin Derfoufi who is a member of StopWatch, an action group that seeks to work with communities, ministers, policy makers and senior police officers to ensure that the reforms to the police service are fair and inclusive, and lead to better policing for all. Zin told me "The recent summer riots exposed the inevitable consequences of the overuse of police powers. This is now acknowledged by police forces around the country and we all must work together to swiftly scrap the more draconian elements of stop and search powers but ensure that the appropriate legislation retained is used fairly, intelligently, proportionately and in ways that respects young people".

Until young people feel the police respect them we have no chance of young people respecting the police. The next few years will be tense with growing public anger around the cuts and when this is shown through public disobedience it's hard to imagine the relationship between the police and young people improving, especially as BAME young people already have reasons to see the police as targeting them in particular.