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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 January 2008, 03:33 GMT
Is stop and search a good idea?
By Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

Richmond Kessie
Richmond Kessie thinks increasing stop and search is a step backwards

Prime Minister Gordon Brown plans to give police the power to stop and search people without giving a reason, the BBC understands.

The suggestion was mooted by Tory leader David Cameron to reduce violent crime, but what do people in Brixton, south London, think?

"Skunk weed, skunk weed!"

That's what the teenage boys leaning casually against the front of a fast food restaurant say.

Some make this drug offer in a conspiratorial whisper to passers-by.

The more confident members of the group are more open, projecting their voices as if selling merchandise at a market stall.

Now it seems the leaders of the two main parties believe increasing police stop and search powers would make this inner-city scene, along with violent murders, a thing of the past.

Observing the law

Stella Aina certainly hopes so.

The social worker from Essex is aware that government figures show that she and her children are six times more likely to be stopped than white people.

But she says she supports such an increase in powers because "it will reduce the number of crimes on the street" by being a deterrent.

"It will show our young boys that the world is not theirs and the law is there to be observed," she says.

"If my children were stopped and searched I wouldn't question that. I'd only have a problem if police misused their powers. But in principle I support it."

A spate of fatal shootings and stabbings over the last year - the majority involving black youths - has persuaded her that action has to be taken.

Ptrhys Bryant says the measures will "make things safer".

Ray Bryant, who has lived in Brixton for most of his 56 years, also believes the use of more stop and search tactics could work, although he says he is "50-50" on the issue of whether it is a good or bad idea.

"It's getting more and more crowded around here and sometimes I feel intimidated. Maybe officers will be able to do their job properly," he says, pointing towards the end of Coldharbour Lane where offers of skunk - and often its pungent odour - fill the air.

With government figures revealing that Asian people are also more likely to be stopped than white people - twice as likely, to be precise - the stop and search debate appears to have a racial dimension.

And this comes to the fore when Mauritian-born pensioner Sam Domun discusses the issue with his English wife, Eileen.

She reiterates David Cameron's contention that any increase in police powers would be to protect youngsters.

And, pointing out the disproportionately high number of ethnic minority teenagers being stabbed or shot dead, she says it makes sense if youngsters from such racial backgrounds are targeted more than others.

"If you've got nothing to hide you shouldn't feel offended because everyone will be protected by this. It should drive down crime," argues the 70-year-old.

Bad law

HAVE YOUR SAY
This initiative must be a positive step in the right direction
Ian, Southport

But her husband, shaking his head and sighing as she speaks, sees the situation from a very different perspective.

"It's a bad law for black people. People in this area will be stopped just for the way they look," he says.

But opinion is not necessarily divided along racial lines.

Even those most likely to be stopped - black teenage boys - disagree.

Gabriel Balogun, an 18-year-old student decked in the latest sportswear, says he already gets stopped "at least three times a week" and isn't keen on the idea of becoming even more intimately acquainted with police officers.

"Whenever it happens it makes me angry and I hate them. This'll just make things worse," he says.

"One time I was with my girl when they stopped me," he recalls.

Safety measure

"They told me a robbery happened way down the road, and I just thought 'what's that got to do with me?' It was embarrassing in front of her."

But 16-year-old Ptrhys Bryant, from Hackney, recalls a brush with mortality in the form of his friend being stabbed in the leg. He thinks greater protection makes the hassle of being searched repeatedly worthwhile.

"People are carrying blades and guns. They're looking for trouble. This will make things safer," he reasons.

"I don't have anything to worry about because I don't carry weapons."

But many see the extension of police powers as a return to the infamous 'sus' laws of the 1980s in which police routinely stopped large groups of black men.

This inflamed racial tensions and led to the Brixton riots of 1981 in which more than 300 people were injured, including more than 200 police officers, and 83 premises were damaged along with 23 vehicles, at an estimated cost of £7.5m.

This will antagonise young black and Asian kids. It will only make them resent the police more
Richmond Kessie

The disturbance prompted similar riots in the early 80s in Liverpool's Toxteth area, Bristol, Birmingham and Bradford, culminating in 1985 in rioting at north London's Broadwater Farm, in which Police Constable Keith Blakelock was killed.

Older members of Brixton's Afro-Caribbean community bitterly remember those days.

"We had all this in the 70s and 80s. You'd think 30 years down the line we wouldn't be going back down the same road," says Richmond Kessie, 42, a mental health worker.

He remembers how it felt to be "stopped and searched for no reason".

"I felt humiliated. In those days the police thought you were nothing. It didn't matter what you said, their word was worth more than yours. You were made to feel like a thief, even if you hadn't done anything," Mr Kessie recalls.

"This will antagonise young black and Asian kids. It will only make them resent the police more," he says.

"They should be trying to engage kids by giving them somewhere to go, like community centres, not hounding them on street corners," he says wistfully, his voice floating above the din of wailing police sirens and skunk sales pitches.

SEE ALSO
Two bailed in Rhys murder inquiry
16 Jan 08 |  Merseyside
Stop-and-search police page live
06 Jan 08 |  Wiltshire
Minister supports stop and search
21 Dec 07 |  Glasgow, Lanarkshire and West
Politicians in police search row
20 Dec 07 |  Scotland
Stop and search 'not overzealous'
16 Dec 07 |  Scotland
Long history of race rioting
28 May 01 |  UK News

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