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The stop-and-search myth that maligns our police


THE Guardian reported in October on research authored by a group of legal, academic and community activists campaigning for, among other things, ‘fairness’ for drug users, and the end of what they call the disproportionate use of stop-and-search powers by the police.

The report, called The Colour of Injustice, documents stop-and-search figures in England and Wales in 2016-17 and claims that racial bias in police stops is getting worse, with black people nine times more likely to be stopped than white. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham in north London, called the figures a ‘profound injustice’.

His protest is unnecessary because the report’s conclusions are based on a false premise.

The authors compared the number of stops of different racial groups with the ethnic population estimates from the 2011 Census, which remains the most recent well-validated source of information about the ethnic composition of England and Wales. Because they found a disproportionate number (by comparison with the overall demographic) of black stops they assumed the reason to be discrimination.

But it has been known for many years that this is not a valid or correct way to investigate possible police discrimination in their use of stop-and-search.

As long ago as 2000, research by the Home Office showed that it was necessary to compare stop-and-search figures, not with the racial composition and demographics of the national population (or even the resident population), but with the racial composition of those available for stop-and-search, i.e. those who hang around in public places, often at night, and who are therefore potential targets for police stops.

This research concluded that based on data from five different areas of London, including Greenwich, the borough where Stephen Lawrence was murdered, white people tended to be stopped or searched at a higher rate to the available population, while Asian people tended to be ‘under-represented’ and black people had a more mixed experience.

In 2004, additional research findings based on Slough and Reading found once again that, compared with the ‘available population’, (i.e. those out and about) those stopped and searched were not disproportionately drawn from minority groups, and again it demonstrated it was the whites who were over-represented in stops by the police. These authors state: ‘The primary research error in the analysis of police stop-and-search decisions has been to compare the racial proportion of those stopped to their racial proportion in the general population rather than their proportion in the “available population”.’

Thus, The Colour of Injustice repeats the false propaganda presented in the 1999 Macpherson Report, written in the aftermath of the killing of Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993. Paragraph 6.45 of Macpherson said: ‘The over-representation of racial minorities in the national stop-and-search figures led to the clear core conclusion of racist stereotyping.’ But, as illustrated, this was a seriously flawed argument. Macpherson criticised the police for the way the murder inquiry had been handled and furthermore said they were institutionally racist. This was despite the fact that he later contradicted himself by saying that ‘we have not heard evidence of overt racism or discrimination’.

Macpherson’s misuse of the stop figures was highly damaging. In 1999, the year his report was published, the police stopped and searched over a million individuals. The following year this number had fallen by 20 per cent to 857,000, and by 2004 it had been scaled down even further to 734,000, equating to thousands of fewer arrests and a reduced level of public protection from street violence and other crimes.

Between 2010 and 2017, the use of stop-and-search overall fell by 75 per cent. The possibility that this is one of the causes of the significant escalation in street violence over this period, especially knife crimes, resulting in so many deaths, cannot be discounted.

Why, once the flaws in Macpherson’s accusation of racially biased stop-and-search practices had been identified, did no one come to the rescue of the police? Why did no one publicly explain that the investigators had not found evidence that their stop-and-search activity was discriminatory against ethnic minorities? No MP, minister or official has stepped forward to defend the police against accusations of discrimination, and free them from the burden of this false and damaging accusation.

Few events have proved so destructive to the morale of the British police than the broadcasting of this misleading propaganda. Our police have deserved better than false accusations, and they deserve better now than to have them re-worked in such documents as The Colour of Injustice, a pseudo-academic report, whose Left-wing ideology could not be more obvious, and whose scholarship could not be more threadbare.

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David Fraser
David Fraser
David Fraser is the author of Licence to Kill, Britain’s Surrender to Violence. He is a former senior probation officer and criminal intelligence analyst with the National Criminal Intelligence Service (now the National Crime Agency).

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