Riots in England: Inquiry Falls Short on Police Ethnic Profiling

This Monday in London, a panel of independent experts appointed by the British government came out with its interim report on the causes of the rioting that erupted across English cities this summer. Entitled Five Days in Augustthe findings of the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel recall those of a similar inquiry conducted 30 years ago by Lord Scarman, a senior English judge, after disorder convulsed the London suburb of Brixton. The Scarman report concluded that the 1981 events were “essentially an outburst of anger and resentment by young black people against the police.”

Yet this report’s recommendations contrast sharply with Scarman’s call for serious reforms; it seems unlikely that the current UK government will pay any heed to the lackluster suggestion that police work more closely with communities. Instead, David Cameron, the UK prime minister, and his coalition, are busily dismantling key aspects of the protections established after Scarman’s inquiry.

The panel’s report identifies current police “stop and search” practices—embraced by the police as a way of tackling knife crime in particular—as one of the factors behind last summer’s riots. In many of the areas the inquiry visited, stop and search was identified as a major source of discontent with the police. In some instances, these tensions were cited as a motivating factor in the riots and a reason for some of the attacks on the police.

The report finds that there was “no single cause” for the disturbances. It notes that while the catalyst for the initial riots in the London suburb of Tottenham was the fatal shooting by police of Mark Duggan, the “sole trigger” for the violent disturbances elsewhere was the perception that police were not in control, and that “the streets were there for the taking.” It makes 11 key recommendations, warning that “while deprivation is not an excuse for criminal behavior, we must seek to tackle the underlying causes of the riots, or they will happen again.”

The recommendation on stop and search, however, is extremely anodyne. It simply calls “on the police to work with communities and across forces to improve the way in which stop and search is undertaken.” On the questions of how exactly this might be done, and through what mechanisms, the report is completely silent.

Cynicism about likely impact of this hortatory encouragement is fed by recent government moves which have allowed British police forces to end all record-keeping on “stop and accounts” (stops that do not lead to searches), and drastically cutting back on how stop and search is recorded. This has undermined accountability, and taken away the data that would be needed to address the disproportionate use of these powers against black and Asian people.

After the Scarman report, the recording of stop and search was first introduced by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in 1984 (later extended to record stop and account). The data generated provided the evidence of ethnic profiling by British police, but also provided evidence for the development of measures to address the problem. Sustaining and extending these good practices has always proved difficult, as is clear from the ongoing disproportionality the data reveals; nonetheless, without data, good practices will be hard to target and even harder to evaluate.

New regulations introduced in March now give police forces the discretion to choose whether or not to record stop and accounts—and most appear to have chosen not to. Many have chosen to record less information on stop and search too. As a result, it will be harder to assess how effectively stop and search is being used—whether it is targeting the right places and people. It will be harder also to assess the validity of allegations of harassment and abuse.

The government claims to be giving local communities a greater say in how they are policed through electing local Police and Crime Commissioners, but at the same time it is removing the information needed for local accountability.

The report does cite the London Metropolitan Police Services’ commitment to keep recording stop and account as an example of good practice. But it fails to note that this was a legal requirement until a few months ago and that other forces, including that with the worst disproportionality and where serious rioting broke out—the West Midlands Police—are dropping recording of stop and account entirely.

Stop and search is deeply contentious and profoundly shapes peoples’ attitudes towards the police. Young people feel targeted, embarrassed, and humiliated by the experience of repeat stop and search encounters. Stop and search is grossly disproportionate, undermining public assessments of police fairness and as a result jeopardizing public support and cooperation for the police. Recent years have seen a substantial increase in the overall use of stop and search, as well as an expansion of powers that allow stops without there being any individual suspicion. And yet, only one in ten stop and searches leads to an arrest and a much smaller proportion leads to charge and conviction.

The inquiry notes that many of those spoken to expressed support for the use of stop and search, particularly for tackling knife crime, there was widespread discontent with how stop and search was targeted and unprofessional contact. The inquiry shows that there are no “trade off” between respecting civil liberties and equality and effective community safety.

The panel argues that “if searches are insufficiently targeted and not carried out professionally, there is a risk that the consensus that has built up around stop and search is eroded.” But it also says that it “has heard from police forces who feel they have been very successful in building and maintaining confidence around stop and search; best practice should be shared across forces to ensure standards are high.”

This accepts too readily the assurances given by the police that are not born out in stop and search practice or the data. In addition, it ignores the lived realities of many individuals and communities. There is evidence that for many, the “consensus” around the use of stop and search was broken long ago and trust and confidence has already been eroded.

The solution needs to be much greater than asking the police to work with communities.

The Government must publicly acknowledge the problem of ethnic profiling by the police, and set targets for the reduction of disproportionality and increasing effectiveness and a timeline for achieving this goal. They must conduct an independent review into the legal framework of exceptional stop and search powers, and amend the law rather than waiting for legal challenges. The government and police forces must reintroduce the requirement to fully record stops under all legal powers; and put mechanisms in place to ensure that there is effective oversight of the data and local community monitoring.

The Scarman report led to profound changes in laws governing policing in England and Wales through the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. What we need is similarly strong recommendations from the final report of this inquiry that leads to meaningful and sustained change rather than a restatement of the problem. Otherwise, we will be back in this same position in another generation.

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What a well written, incisive and thought provoking piece.

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