Stop, search, peace?

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The rules around ‘stop and search’ have recently been relaxed. A pilot programme increasing the powers of police to challenge people without ‘reasonable suspicion’ was tested earlier in the year across seven police forces and has now been rolled out to the whole of England and Wales.

Meanwhile, as part of a trial, new technology capable of screening 2,000 people an hour for concealed guns, knives and explosives was used by transport police at a station in East London for the first time this month.

But will the increased use of stop and search help to bring peace to our streets?

At CHIPS, our experience as Christian peacemakers on the ground in Brixton and Tottenham – and indeed everywhere we’ve worked around the world – is that relationship-building is a fundamental pillar of peacemaking. In that context, we see several issues with the increased use of stop and search in Britain today.

Does it really work?

Recent research on the success of stop and search is not encouraging. In 2017, the College of Policing analysed Metropolitan Police data over ten years and concluded only that higher rates of stop and search led only to ‘very slightly lower’ crime rates. It also found that increasing ‘without reasonable suspicion’ searches did not appear to affect violent crime.

In addition, in 2017/8, fewer than one in five searches in London led to an arrest. Worryingly, when stop and search was last at its peak in 2008/9, the rate was even lower – at little more than one in twenty. We therefore see a real risk that increased use will simply make some people feel safer, while society actually becomes less safe as more people have negative experiences of law enforcement and community relationships deteriorate further.

A blatantly discriminatory practice

Stop and search is a blatantly discriminatory practice. It continues to be disproportionately used against black people and young people. For example, as recently as 2018, black people were almost ten times more likely to be searched.  

Amazingly, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) concluded in 2017 that many police forces are “unable to explain” why BAME people are disproportionately searched. This simply isn’t good enough. They must explain it and, working together with their communities, agree any response needed. Stop and search is an intrusive tactic, and we cannot alienate large sections of the population.

A crisis of confidence

HMICFRS reports that, as recently as two years ago, some police forces lacked external panels to examine their use of stop and search. Others were not independently chaired, while many didn’t reflect the diversity of their communities.

These apparent gaps in community monitoring and scrutiny concern us. Even recently, we (and those we work with) have seen police officers in Brixton being provocative and verbally and physically aggressive, seemingly without good reason.

We know from bitter experience that, when misused, stop and search actually leads to increased tension – not peace. If we want people to be good citizens, we need to set the right tone and give the right examples. But an open mind and a little creativity can help. One idea we like is involving young people in the training of police officers – helping them to understand how it feels to be searched through role play, and sharing practical insights to help shape policy and procedure. 

Prevention is better than cure

It is clear to us that if the use of stop and search is being stepped up, then the rigour and discipline around it – including research, community engagement and monitoring – must be stepped up too. But all of this takes time and money, reinforcing our view that that resources would be better spent on community relationship-building in the first place.

Ultimately, any amount of enforcement can never replace effective prevention. In recent years, the loss of safer neighbourhood policing teams, who knew the streets of London backwards, has been sorely felt. So has the reduction in police community support officers who play such a critical role in learning from the community, acting as a visible presence on the street, and supporting children on the edge of crime.

Police have informally told us that they understand how important relationship building is, and they feel frustrated that they only have enough resources to prioritise enforcement. But recently announced plans to recruit an additional 20,000 police officers provide an opportunity to help address this. If a meaningful proportion of this investment is directed towards community engagement, it would be money well spent.

Ultimately, as a charity that has worked in some of London’s most challenging boroughs, our experience tells us that strong relationships – and not intrusive enforcement tactics – are the key pillars of peacemaking. Without them, the increased use of stop and search will only bring more tension to our streets – and not the peace we all long for.

That’s a scenario everyone should work to avoid.