“Blame the Police”, declared the front page story in The Guardian, as the British newspaper published the details of its own inquiry into the violent rioting that swept English cities last summer. Its story and analysis were drawn from a survey of 270 people who had actually taken part in the summer troubles, a survey carried out by researchers from the London School of Economics, and partially funded by the Open Society Foundations. Anger at the police emerged as the headline theme.
The Guardian’s Reading the Riots project has added to an increasingly significant debate in Britain over much the police can be blamed for what happened. Questions have been raised both over how the police responded to the violence, and over the impact of current policing tactics, including so-called “stop and search” tactics aimed at young people suspected of carrying weapons or drugs.
On November 28, the interim report from the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel (RCVP) , the experts group set up by the UK government, also cited stop and search tactics as one of eight factors that contributed to the riots, along with issues of poverty, anger at spending cuts, opportunism on the part of looters, and a more general sense of impunity.
Members of the UK campaign group StopWatch are already very familiar with the questions now being raised more generally over stop and search tactics. StopWatch comprises academics, lawyers, young people and community groups who are working for greater fairness and accountability in the use of stop and search. They already know from personal experience that stop and search tactics have aggravated the poor state of police relations with residents in certain deprived, urban communities.
This was underlined by a short film made by the group shortly before the riots erupted. In Profiles of the Profiled, a group of young film-makers from StopWatch asked other young people to talk about their experiences of policing and being subjected to stop and search.
“It has grown a lot of bad feelings towards the police,’ one young man says. In the words of another: “As a whole, it’s a very small part of policing. But it seems to have a very negative impact on community relations”.
The young people interviewed seem to have little positive contact with police officers. This raises important questions over how the police should respond to the riots, since the RCVP report called on the police “to work with communities and across forces to improve the way in which stop and search is undertaken”.
But existing efforts to work with communities are clearly flawed. After the violence, London’s Metropolitan police admitted, with understatement, that “a level of tension existed among sections of the community that was not identified through the community engagement”.
But would better communication solve the problems? The problem is the nature of the message itself.
The RCVP report concluded, in effect, that stop and search can be sensitively pursued without alienating the young people who are its target. It also argued that “most of those we spoke with—including people who are most affected by searches—agree with the principles behind stop and search, particularly to reduce the number of weapons carried in public in areas of high crime”.
But this position is not supported by the evidence. The reality is that a tiny minority of searches retrieve any weapon. Under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which was specifically redrafted to deal with knife crime, only 2 per cent of all searches lead to an arrest while only 0.4 per cent of searches find a weapon.
Despite this, the reality is that, for most people, their only source of information about stop and search is what the police tell them about it. Visits to schools, community meetings, statements to the press—all frame stop and search as an effective way to get guns and knives off the streets.
Similar views were expressed by some of the young people interviewed by StopWatch. One man, who admitted to feeling “habitual anger” towards the police, still said that “in the times that we live in, what goes on in those streets, I’d say stop and search is needed”. The police themselves see stop and search as an “essential crime fighting tool”, according to the RCVP report.
But when the StopWatch film makers had finished their interviews and, as often happens, the conversation about stop and search got deeper, young people who had said on camera that they thought stop and search was necessary to save lives expressed disbelief when they were told the respective hit rates. They could not believe that the police’s number one weapon against knife crime caught less than one perpetrator every two hundred searches.
The fact that these young people had never heard anything other than the assertion that stop and search was working tells us that popular consciousness has internalized this practice as part of the social landscape. It is no longer subject to genuine principled challenges, even as more and more evidence points to its ineffectiveness and the collateral damage it causes to police-community relations.
The solution to a problem which has marred police community relations for the last 30 years must be bold and different from what has come before. There must be more dialogue, yes. But it must be dialogue with the right people, and it must be genuine. The police need to talk and listen to those who have the most frequent and troubled experiences of stop and search, to understand the damage being done.