An increase in, and a strengthening of, stop and search powers looks set to become a key part of the government’s “tough on crime” agenda.
Currently the police have to state a specific reason for stopping someone and/or searching them in the street. The reason has to be in line with current legislation. They also have to give you form stating exactly why they stopped you and what the outcome was. If the stop and search is conducted under anti-terrorism legislation the police do not have to suspect you of having committed a crime in order to stop you.
New Labour have extended a anytime, anywhere, any reason “stop and search” scheme to four piloted areas. A just-published review of policing (the Flannegan review) recommends ditching the police form when police stop “suspects”. The freed up time, says the review, will enable the police to carry out more stop and searches.
Whatever the government does, the Tories will say they have not gone far enough — short of having the legal right to batter you to death, the Tories want the police to be given many many more powers.
It all looks bad especially as, in practice, the police often stop people simply because they are black or Asian and young. In the cops’ minds they are more likely to have committed a crime, so they deserved to be stopped.
Why the government believe stopping and searching is a good way to winkle out Islamist terrorists in this way, is baffling — as if the average would-be suicide bomber goes around with a jihadist handbook in their back pocket! In reality the stop and search routine, under the anti-terror laws, has been a pretext and a prelude to taking in “suspects” for questioning (Asian looking people with “Islamic-sounding” names). A big increase in police questioning and arrests of Asian people since 2001 has produced a tiny number of relevant charges being brought.
Both New Labour and the Tories say that there will be no reintroduction of “Sus Laws”. Twenty or thirty years ago the police routinely used 19th century vagrancy laws to gave them unlimited power to stop and mainly young and/or black men they suspected of committing a crime (hence the “sus”), or ”being about to commit a crime”. That person could be arrested and charged and convicted merely on the say so of the police. The police used the Sus Law to routinely harrass mainly young black men, labelled as criminal by a racist criminal justice system and the wider society.
Surely New Labour won’t reintroduce this? Don’t be too sure about that. What’s the context?
This measure, and others such as ASBO and other anti-social behaviour policies, are the result of the prevalent “fear of crime” ideology. Crime is a real problem and a rational cause for fear for many working class people, especially if you live in a deprived area. But there is also a great deal of hysteria and ignorance being pedalled by media and politicians.
To hear some of them talk you would think that the streets of Britain’s cities are like the Wild West. (For instance the recent Jacqui Smith comment about how “one does not go out on the streets of Hackney after dark”). Urged on by the Tories, the government are pushing the police to get out on the streets more, to “clean up” anti-social behaviour, be a physical intimidating presence in working class communities. Everything area of urban life is to be policed — from stopping teenagers from drinking in public to deterring litter droppers with talking CCTV cameras.
It is all a convenient distraction for a government that’s up to its neck in petty corruption and charges of incompetence, a government that is (rightly) anxious about a serious downturn in the economy.
Increasing stop and search is a policy of people who have no imagination, ability or inclination to deal with crime as a social problem (or for that matter, Islamist terrorism as a political and social problem).
And increasing stop and search means increasing racist harrassment, discrimination and injustice on our streets.
Fact: black men are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white men. Black people in general are four times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. And Asian people are twice as likely to be stopped and searched. Stopping black people if they have nice cars is not about protecting black people from crime, as David Cameron would have it, it is about accusing them of stealing a car! Stopping young Asian men is not about stopping them from being stabbed, it’s about assuming they are a terrorist.
Fact: 67% of stop and searches are currently for drugs.
Put the two facts together and you get the police’s favourite script about average everyday crimes: all young black men are drug pushers.
The racist assumptions absolutely stink, but that is not the sum total of the stupidity of this kind of policing.
Only 7% of all drug-related stop and searches actually result in an arrest. It seems likely therefore that the police are rountinely harrassing people either for personal possession of drugs, or because they just want to, because they haven’t got anything better to do, and they really don’t know how to prevent drug-related crime.
In the 1980s hatred of the “sus laws” was one of the incendiary ingredients of a series of huge explosions of anger by black youth on the streets of British cities. In April 1981 the police sent 100 extra police into Brixton under “Operation Swamp”. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested. This followed years and years of “sus law” operation. When one young man was arrested, his head bleeding, a crowd of people rescued him from the police. The police went wild, wielding batons and chasing people as the people of Brixton fought back. Elemental battles like these helped change the law — for the better.
Do New Labour and the Tories want to see such things happen again? Maybe not. But they are either too stupid, too parsimonious or just too illiberal to do anything better.
It is the job of socialists, people who want to create a better society, to advocate something better.
In the first place we have to fight hard to defend civil liberties. Weak as water statements from the professional civil liberties organisations have been the reaction to these proposals. We need to be clear: nobody should have to put up with being routinely harrassed on the street, in public or in private, anywhere, as they go about their business.
We call for social answers to crime. Instead of building more, bigger prisons, spend more money on drug rehabilitation.
Create a society where people have equal and full access to housing, education and health care.
Instead of creating ever more sophisticated anti-social interventions for youth, have a budget for youth facilities, or stop cutting and dumbing down further education.
Instead of threatening to evict council tenants if they don’t look for work, create real jobs and training.