Today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old, brutally murdered by five white youths in a racially motivated attack in Eltham, south east London. The judicial inquiry into his death concluded that the failed police investigation in the aftermath had been marred by a combination of incompetence, institutional racism, and a failure of leadership. It led to widespread reform of the police service. Yet, one area where there has been little change is stop and search.
The inquiry unambiguously condemned the disproportionate use of stop and search, whereby black people are searched at much higher rates than whites. And yet, the last decade has seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of stops and searches, particularly those which don’t have the safeguard of requiring individual reasonable suspicion. The tactic is still disproportionately targeted at black people, and, while grossly overused, it has little real crime-fighting benefit—only one stop in ten leads to an arrest, and many of those are for minor drug possession offenses.
The practice also carries real costs—costs not just in terms of police resources, but to the lives of those who are targeted. While the numbers are often reported, the lived experience of stop and search is less well known. What does it mean to bear the brunt of stop and search—to be singled out in public as someone suspected of committing a crime?
The Open Society Justice Initiative and StopWatch conducted interviews with nine people from across England who have been directly affected by stop and search. To contextualize these stories, we analyzed data from large-scale population surveys, allowing us to connect the interviews with the experiences of different groups. Today we launch a report, a portrait series, and a film documenting what we found.
One of the enduring images from the Stephen Lawrence case is that of parents searching for justice for their son. We found echoes of this in the experiences of the parents we interviewed, who spoke emotionally about seeing their children change as a result of repeated encounters with the police.
Dianne Josephs, a university administrator from Essex has seen her son Reece change from “a bubbly teenager” to a “withdrawn” young adult. She told us:
When I think about the police, I feel that they have stripped my son of his soul and his dreams. They made him feel worthless. That they make him feel that he’s somebody that they can stop and rough up whenever they please with no explanation. You should be able to send your child to the shop to buy a pint of milk without them being stopped on the way back.
Paul Mortimer, a retired professional footballer and educator has himself experienced numerous stop searches. His 14-year-old was recently stopped and searched for the first time leading to a conversation about police racism and how to respond to the police. “The conversation,” where parents try to prepare their children for such encounters, is a common feature of black family life. Paul Mortimer explains,
If I had a choice, I wouldn’t want to be having that conversation with him at all, because at fourteen, that’s not something that, really, a fourteen-year-old boy should ever be looking to discuss. And that’s what saddened me… because children, you want them to have good experiences when they’re young.
The overall picture that emerges is disturbing.
Black people, those of mixed black-white heritage, and Asian Muslims are disproportionately stopped and searched under various different powers. Not only are they disproportionality stopped, they are more likely to be searched and have negative experiences of those encounters compared to other ethnic groups. For the individual stopped and searched the experience, sometimes of frequent repeat encounters with the police, can be frightening and humiliating. These encounters have wide ranging repercussions for those people and can change the course of their lives.
It’s difficult to see who the winners are in this situation. Certainly not impacted communities, who feel targeted and alienated, often viewing the police as an occupying force, and whose trust and confidence in the police is eroded on a daily basis. And this loss of legitimacy also has significant knock-on-effects for the police because it reduces public cooperation and compliance with the law. Taken to its extreme the anger that is fostered by the injudicious use of stop and search can explode into the kinds of rioting that were seen in Brixton in 1981 and across much of England in 2011.
For those who have not experienced stop and search it is easy to dismiss it as a minor inconvenience. But failure to heed the warnings in these stories risks fostering a more damaged, more divided, and dangerous society. The Lawrence legacy of police reform isn’t complete. It requires action that recognises the human costs of stop and search—action that finally accounts for those on the receiving end.