The relationship between young people and the police in London has once again been in the spotlight this weekend. It has been reported that a policeman was captured on tape allegedly assaulting a young black teenager just hours after a colleague of his was recorded abusing another man with a serious racial slur.
This comes on the back of the release of the final report of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel last week, which concluded that stop and search and perceived heavy-handed policing was identified as a major source of discontent with the police and cited as a motivating factor in the riots and a reason for some of the attacks on the police.
Take for instance the ruling last November that found 19-year-old Denzel Harvey had been wrongly convicted of a public order offence for swearing at a police officer during a stop and search. Currently under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, it is possible to be arrested for “conduct likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress” to those present, even if no one present claims to have actually suffered any distress.
The police have argued in the past that those who swear at them during street encounters are likely to cause them alarm and distress, thereby allowing them to use their powers of arrest in situations where stop and searches like Harvey’s lead to verbal abuse. While this practice may please some who would like to see the police forcibly “respected,” the above ruling by Mr. Justice Bean is a step away from the unnecessary criminalization of many young people who have committed no crime until they are stopped, questioned or searched by police. In Harvey’s case, the police were searching him for drugs in “a public area while a group of teenage bystanders had gathered”—Harvey was annoyed and embarrassed about being targeted and was vocal about his innocence throughout the search, until police concluded that he was right—he wasn’t found to be carrying any drugs. Despite this, Harvey’s language earned him a conviction and a fine which were only overturned on appeal; the judge finding that police officers could not claim to be offended by ‘rather commonplace’ words like “f***” and “s***,” encountering them on a daily basis.
Low arrest rates from stop and search have been well documented—the percentage of stops that lead to arrests currently stands at around 9 percent nationally, however this ruling raises fresh concerns about what crimes these arrests are for, information which is not currently available.
Academics carrying out research into the effectiveness of stop and search fear the real hit rate for crimes committed is being hidden by arrests for public order offences where the suspect was actually innocent of any crime the officer could have suspected when carrying out the stop. The London School of Economics’s Mike Shiner, who is part of the coalition group StopWatch says: “The police have long used the Public Order Act as a way of punishing members of the public who do not immediately co-operate with them in stressful and difficult interactions like stop searches. This ruling may go some way to changing the police’s use of Section 5 as a catch all for those they deem ‘in contempt of cop.’”
The lingering question in all this remains—“surely we shouldn’t be making it easier for people to swear at the police?” The simple answer to this is no, none of us should have to endure swearing, including the police. But what if you got stopped and searched three times in a week and every time the police came up empty handed? Wouldn’t that start to get you a little irritated? Do you deserve a conviction and a fine for having had your time wasted and your respectability repeatedly questioned?
Unfortunately for many young people, these theoretical questions are a day-to-day reality. Without doubt, young people who express themselves with expletives need to learn to control their frustration for their own sake. But, while it’s unlikely that police officers feel genuinely alarmed or harassed when they hear the F-word, the experiences I’ve had speaking to police officers reveal a deep misunderstanding about young people’s motivations for being verbally abusive towards the police. While testing boundaries with authority figures is a normal feature of adolescence, shouting and swearing at police officers when you find yourself face to face with them in the street, outnumbered, detained and searched is not down to the usual adolescent churlishness. To police officers who lament the anger directed at them by young people, who are innocent 90 percent of the time they’re stopped, I’d say this—you have at least one colleague on hand, handcuffs, a baton, pepper spray and legal powers to take away that person’s liberty. All they have are words. For a young person who feels humiliated and powerless faced with the full force of the law, the bravado and the abuse are a poor attempt to cover their shame and sense of vulnerability.
Fines and convictions only emphasize the uneven power dynamics between police and young people; while we’d all love to think the police are always professional, I know I haven’t been able to slap a fine on an officer when he’s sworn at me or my friends having decided we’re worth being pulled aside for some questioning and a friendly pat down. This ruling helps us move away from attempts to coerce young people into a respectful relationship with the police. What we need is to look further at the issues which underlie this hostility and work to solve them—the ineffective use and abuse of stop and search powers is one such area.