Yesterday, Teresa May announced it’s time to “get stop and search right”. The public is to be consulted as part of a national review on stop and search powers.
This news is hugely welcome.
Over recent years relations between the police and some communities have declined. The topic doesn’t stay out of the headlines for long. At the start of this year Stuart Lawrence lodged a complaint around racism within the Met following his 25th stop.
The Home Secretary’s consultation, if done right, could bring experiences like Stuart Lawrence’s to the forefront, harness communities’ ideas to improve stop and search practices and at the same time help bridge the widening gap between the police and the community.
The voices of young people are vital in this consultation. Too often their experiences, opinions and recommendations are missing; they find themselves spoken about rather than to.
Last year we held workshops at The College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London to explore students’ experiences of stop and search and how they felt the procedure could be improved. But how do our findings compare to the Home Secretary’s aims with the upcoming consultation?
Teresa May wants to improve the efficiency of stop and search practices. She notes one stop and search takes on average 16 minutes to conduct, equating to 312,000 hours each year or 145 full-time police officers.
However a focus on financial savings must not neglect the human cost of poor stop and search, which can be high. One young man in our workshops highlighted the impact: “The more times I get stopped, it’s changing me… I don’t want to be that person but they say you’re this kind of person, and they treat me like that person”.
Many students’ bad experiences of stop and search were based primarily on poor communication. Often this is a lack of clarity over why they are stopped and the manner in which officers treat them.
Of course, many stop and searches are carried out well every day. And in fact, the vast majority of students felt that it was necessary for their and their families’ safety. But bad experiences prevail in people’s memories and can have a lasting damage on relations between the police and the community. “You need to be able to turn to the police when you need help. If stop and search is done badly then the respect won’t be there and you will feel less able to turn to them.”
Spending time to ensure that good communication and mutual understanding go hand-in-hand with stop and search is key to creating more positive experiences and thus improved relations between the police and public.
At the same time as tackling efficiency, Teresa May wants to make sure that “nobody is ever stopped just on the basis of their skin colour or ethnicity”.
A feeling that racial prejudice influences stop and search was overwhelming among the students we spoke with. However many were sceptical about the possibility that this could change.
In the workshops, comments such as: “if you’re tall and black you’re asking for trouble” were met with widespread agreement. Many students also felt that “the description [given for a stop and search] always fits me”. Again, this feeling of being stereotyped is compounded by a lack of clarity and communication during the search. Without a valid reason for being stopped, fears about racial stereotyping are exacerbated. Taking the time to be clear and open could avoid many bad experiences: “One day I could fit the description, for example a black woman in blue. But tell me that”.
In our workshops, students and police officers worked alongside one another. For the young people this meant they were listened to by people who had the power to make changes, and mutual understanding and trust were built.
We hope the Home Secretary goes about the upcoming consultation in a similar way, drawing on the experiences and ideas of people across all communities. It is a vital opportunity to build bridges between young people and the police, which, if done correctly, could set us on the right path to better relations.
Read our report Let’s Talk About Stop and Search for the findings and voices from our workshops,as well as key recommendations for stop and search in the future.