Over the summer prime minister Boris Johnson made a series of pronouncements on law and order. Alongside the headline grabbing figures to recruit 20,000 extra police officers and create 10,000 new prison places, was a pledge to extend police stop and search powers. Citing a rise in the number of deaths from knife crime, Johnson justified the extension to “make criminals afraid – not the public”.
Napo members are committed to protecting the public; it is in our DNA. But how should we respond to policies like stop and search, whose history is littered with examples of abuse through racial profiling?
Under current powers, police can stop someone if they have reasonable suspicion they may be carrying a weapon, or may otherwise engaged in criminal activity. These powers can be extended under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act to anyone in a defined area if police believe, with good reason, there may be serious violence. Crucially, these extended powers must be authorised by a senior officer.
The system has been widely criticised as racist, and there is compelling evidence to support this. In 2017/18, for example, research published in The Independent revealed parts of the country where black people were 17 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. In 2019, a Section 60 Order was issued that covered the entire Notting Hill Carnival in West London. The fact there were fewer arrests than the previous year suggests police beliefs about violence were misplaced.
Under the new proposals, authority to use Section 60 would be reduced from a senior officer to an inspector. Johnson has justified this by reference to Operation Blunt, carried out by the Met Police during his time as London Mayor. He maintains the Operation took, “11,000 knives off the street and led to a serious reduction in knife crime”. This claim is dubious, to say the least. Firstly, it is estimated over half the knives recovered were retrieved by other methods, such as metal detectors near schools. Secondly, the number of homicides in London continued to decline between 2009 and 2017 despite the abandonment of Operation Blunt
But the real concern is in what history shows are the negative consequences of targeting whole communities. In 1981 Britain was swept by riots in several major cities. In Brixton, Operation Swamp led to over a thousand stop and searches in six days resulting in a conflagration of violence and criminal damage lasting several days. Following the Scarman Report (1981) the infamous SUS laws used under the Vagrancy Act 1824, were replaced by the more measured Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) act in operation today. The lessons of Scarman are clear, wholesale targeting of communities, has negative results.
This is borne out by the government’s own analysis in 2015 on stop and search internationally, which concluded that it had no discernible impact on violent crime and but a “potentially adverse impact on the public’s willingness to help”.
Napo has a duty to challenge government policies that go against our values as an anti-racist union, that defends human rights and fights all forms of oppression. An extension of stop and search will do nothing to reduce violent crime, and can potentially take us one step back towards the discriminatory SUS laws.
Kent, Surrey, Sussex Branch