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Thursday, 7 November, 2002, 14:56 GMT
Troubled history of stop and search

For too long, the row over stop and search has poisoned relations between ethnic minorities and the police. But attitudes on both sides have changed.
Almost four years since the Macpherson report into the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, stop and search remains one of the most contentious issues in British criminal justice.

Its disputed use has arguably caused more conflict than any other policing strategy.

In 2001 Home Office statistics showed that black people were five times more likely to be stopped by police than white people.

A year on, that factor has now risen to eight times more likely, something that will greatly dismay race campaigners - and many police officers working hard to build community relations.

Stop and search first came to national prominence with the Brixton riots. In 1981, police launched Operation Swamp in an attempt to deal with south London street crime.

Officers used so-called "sus" laws to search large numbers of young black men in Brixton.

The resentment proved too much and led to rioting.

In the wake of the violence, the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act introduced new rules for stop and search.

Officers would be required to have "reasonable suspicion" that an offence had been committed.

Race groups complained that the law remained vague and open to abuse, though one recent change means officers can face discrimination charges if they don't follow the rules.

Open in new window : Stop and search
Figures by race and region

The 1999 Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence proved a watershed in policing with its conclusion that the Metropolitan Police had been blighted by institutional racism.

Looking at the use of stop and search, it accepted that it was a valuable policing tool.


The minority communities' views and perceptions are formed by their experience of all "stops" by the police. They do not perceive any difference between a "stop" under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act from one under the Road Traffic Act whilst driving a vehicle. All "stops" need to be recorded...

Macpherson Report, 1999
But it also concluded there were disparities in its use, such as unrecorded and temporary stops of vehicles driven by black or Asian people.

The immediate effect of Macpherson was a decline in the use of stop and search.

In London, stop and searches fell from 180,000 in 1999/00 to 169,000 the following year.

Nationally, the number of stop and searches fell by 21% and then a further 16% from 1998 to 2000.

By December 2000, representatives of rank and file officers were saying that Macpherson had damaged morale. Officers, they said, were unprepared to use stop and search out of fear of being labelled racist.

Proving what a political controversy it was, the then Conservative leader William Hague called for more use of stop and search, only to be attacked by the government.

Despite this furore, the government changed tack in March when Home Secretary David Blunkett said he wanted more use of stop and search.

The new look power is expected to include officers issuing some kind of "certificate" to those stopped, largely a Macpherson idea to help monitor its just use.

Survey and attitudes

BBC News Online's 2002 survey on race looked at the experience of the police among different groups (see internet links).

Approximately a third of black and Asian respondents each said they had been "made to feel like a criminal" because of their colour.

Asked if and how many times they had been stopped and searched, white respondents reported fewer and more infrequent instances than black and Asian respondents.

Asked whether the police discriminate on race, 55% of black respondents and 47% of Asian said they do. Almost half of white respondents said the police do not discriminate.

Of those who said yes to that question, exactly half said they had experienced racism.

Almost 40% of black respondents and a third of Asian respondents said the fallout from the Lawrence inquiry had failed to alter attitudes within the police.

Universal opposition?

Historically, race campaigners have argued that stop and search has been used disproportionately and has poisoned race relations with the police.

Mike Best, editor of The Voice
Mike Best: Newspaper supported policy
But the rise in violent crime perpetrated by drug gangs operating within black communities has contributed to a shift in opinion.

Earlier this year Mike Best, editor of the black newspaper The Voice, said concerns over stop and search were now outweighed by the need to tackle these crimes.

He argued the police had become far more professional in the use of stop and search.

He faced an immediate backlash from some race campaigners but Trevor Phillips, chair of the London Assembly, was among those to leap to his defence.

"This dramatic u-turn [by The Voice] may corner the small minority in our community who want to belittle the threat posed by black criminals," he wrote.

"More importantly, it emphasises that the mainstream of the black community is deeply concerned about the spate of arbitrary and violent crime which is disfiguring our cities - and, by the way, bearing down more heavily on us than on anyone else."


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