DESPITE the Metropolitan Police Commissioner announcing a new approach to stop-and-search in January after a report linked its aggressive and repeated misuse to the riots last year, thousands of innocent people are still being detained every week prompting concerns that the foundations are being laid for further unrest.
Police officers stop-and-search a thousand people a day in London, according to the Met’s own statistics, arresting little over ten per cent. Figures on how many are actually charged are currently unavailable.
While Section 60s, where a stop-and-search can be conducted without suspicion of criminal involvement, have dropped significantly young people between the ages of 10 and 24 – particularly black males – are still being heavily targeted through PACE (the Police and Criminal Evidence Act).
Most are suspected of being involved with drugs or weapons, according to the Met’s stats, although most of the young people I have spoken to say they are accused of matching the description of a burglar or robber.
While few are arrested, teenage victims of stop-and-search complain of being manhandled, treated like criminals, and humiliated in front of their friends, neighbours and even parents while hanging out or making their way home from school.
One teenager from Hackney said he missed a GCSE exam after being stopped on his way in to school.
Ondre Roach, who says he has been stopped about 30 times, said: “It affects your confidence. You’re just going about being teenagers. We would go somewhere to chill and have a joke after school and then someone would be stopped by the police and it would just change your whole mindset and we would get annoyed and say something and they would say something back and that’s when the problems start.”
While few people would dispute the informed use of stop-and-search based on intelligence is a necessary tool to tackle some crime, campaigners say the collateral damage from the current fishing exercise approach is counter-productive.
Lucy Ferguson, director at creative youth organisation YHWorld in Hackney and spokesperson for a new initiative calling for officers to stop-and-talk instead, says it’s not just the immediate impact on young people that is of concern.
She said: “We’re breeding a generation of young people with negative attitudes towards the police. The knock on effect is that young people don’t think about going to the police to report crime or to explain what’s happening in their communities.”
When asked what they can do to tackle the problem young people shrug saying they feel powerless. Unaware of their rights or how to complain – or if indeed its even worth doing so – they accept stop-and-search as a fact of life.
However, at a public meeting in Hackney last week parents, lawyers, journalists, academics, youth workers, teachers and concerned residents met to hear the thoughts and experiences of local youths and discuss the problem.
While groups have been campaigning unsuccessfully against the misuse of stop-and-search for years, communities are now attempting to take things into their own hands to empower and support young people into asserting their right to be treated like any other member of society.
In what could be described as a multi-pronged attack a group of volunteer lawyers, from the Stop and Search Legal Project, are training local people to go into schools and colleges to teach young people their rights while being stop-and-searched.
They are being encouraged to download the stop-and-search phone app that lists their rights and offers a portal to record their experience.
Advised they should demand the receipts police are obliged to hand out after conducting a stop-and-search as evidence of its occurrence and told how to complain.
And told of lawyers who will take up their case if they feel they have been abused or mistreated.
Sophie Khan, a lawyer who specialises in litigation against the police, said: “We need to challenge the legality of stop-and-search in the courts and find out what is and what isn’t necessary.”
The wider community, particularly older, white or middle-class people, were also encouraged to get involved by monitoring stop-and-searches they see putting pressure on the police to act professionally and use their phone to film any mistreatment.
One teenager in the audience agreed. He said: “Get to know the young people, talk to them, talk to their families and if you see one of them getting stop and searched on the streets speak to the police, say wait, why are you stopping this young person. I’ve been stop and searched running to Tescos with my hood on because you have that stereotype.”
Kam Gill, of the stop-and-search reform group Stopwatch, said: “It’s always targeted at the working class and particularly minority groups, but these are the groups that are most vulnerable when policing breaks down and who need a police force they can rely on, but you can’t rely on a police force that treats you like a criminal population.”
With little faith in the authorities making any real change the plan is to hit the police with an avalanche of complaints, litigation, negative press and public surveillance of its behaviour to ratchet up the pressure for them to consistently act professionally while carrying out stop-and-searches and only to use them with good reason.
As an older member of the audience said: “What we want to do is say to the police enough is enough. We’re sick and tired of you terrorising our young people and now we’re going to start fighting back.”
* Hackney Council will be discussing stop-and-search and its effects on Wednesday at the Town Hall from 7pm. The debate was triggered following a petition by Stop Criminalising Hackney Youth