THERE are few things that the police do that arouse such strong emotions as stop and search. This was clear again when British sprinter Bianca Williams was stopped and searched two weeks ago. Ms Williams claims she and her partner were racially profiled and has called for the head of the Metropolitan Police to step down. Bianca is black, as is her Portuguese partner. A brief video taken by Ms Williams on her phone shows her shouting whilst a police officer asks her to keep calm and to step out of her vehicle. The Met Police have already stated that they are content that the officers present conducted themselves properly. But the force’s Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, has added to the confusion around this incident by apologising to Ms Williams for any distress caused, though not for how the police behaved, in what might be described as a classic ‘non-apology apology’.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Ms Williams’s case, it feeds into the perception that stop and search is evidence that the police are racist. A poll conducted for last week’s ITV programme Stephen Lawrence: Has Britain changed? found that 77 per cent of black people thought that the police were racist and even 44 per cent of whites felt the same way.
The Met Police will be mortified by these findings and wonder what they can possibly do next. They have been making strenuous efforts in recent years to try to engage with people about how and why they use stop and search. They have set up Community Monitoring Groups, ordinary citizens in each London borough who are invited to comment and question local police on their use of stop and search. Representatives (of whom I’m one) also meet senior Met officers at City Hall to discuss stop and search practice.
When confronted by an incident such as that involving Ms Williams, the first thing members of these groups want to see is the footage from officers’ body-worn video. All police officers patrol with a video camera, a small rectangular black box which they wear near their shoulder. Officers are required to switch it on whenever they may be engaging in an incident such as a stop and search so that assertions of poor police behaviour can be readily investigated. Video of all encounters is retained for 30 days and then deleted unless needed for any investigation or complaint.
Body-worn video was trialled by the Met in 2014 and was in near universal use by early 2018. Officers were initially suspicious of this spy on their activity but they quickly came to realise it was a great defence against vexatious complaints and have embraced it enthusiastically. In the year to April 2019, the Met received 319 complaints arising from stopping and searching, a reduction of 34 per cent on the previous year. Such complaints made up only 4 per cent of all the complaints against the Met. Furthermore, the Met were happy to allow members of Community Monitoring Groups to select a small random sample of stop and search videos for viewing, to understand better how such encounters are undertaken. Last year lawyers intervened to end this practice for fear of breaching data protection laws.
As part of their effort to reassure the public of their good faith, the Met publish a mass of data on stop and search, somewhat clumsily organised over two websites here and here. They reveal evidence of ‘disproportionality’ in so far as men are about 14 times more likely to be stopped than women, those aged 15-19 three times more likely to be stopped than 25-29 year olds and six times more likely to be stopped than 35-39 year olds; if you’re over 45, the police are barely interested in looking in your pockets. But none of this should come as a surprise to anyone – crime has always been a young man’s speciality.
On the issue of race, after adjusting for population, blacks are four time more likely to searched than whites and Asians are about 50 per cent more likely to be searched than whites. David Fraser, a crime analyst, has explained on TCW why such apparent disproportionality is not evidence of racial discrimination and how claims that it is are based on a false premise:
‘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.’
When the ‘positive outcome rate’ of stop and search is considered, i.e. the percentage of searches that result in an arrest, caution or fine, any disparity largely disappears. The ‘positive’ outcome rate in 2019 was 23.7 per cent overall: 25 per cent for whites, 22.7 per cent for blacks, 22.4 per cent for Asians. The notion that the Met are systematically stopping and searching ethnic minorities for no good reason really doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny and analysis.
The Met, wisely, have taken the initiative on the Bianca Williams incident, referring themselves to the police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct. If they seem eager to be externally scrutinised on this matter, it is a sign of their increasing confidence in how their officers’ behaviour stacks up against best practice. Ms Williams, or any other complainant, also has the option open to her of asking for the video to be released for everyone to see what happened. After all the publicity surrounding this incident it is no less than the public – and the Met – deserves.