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'Was May’s stop and search announcement an election pitch?'

THE HOME Secretary’s review is clear recognition that the power disproportionately impacts on black men and poisons relationships between the police and communities, but if her proposals remain voluntary, they are toothless. Are we seeing genuine commitment to change or a sly Tory manoeuvre for your vote?

A better definition of ‘reasonable suspicion’ is a step in the right direction, as is asking the HMIC to review other stop powers including stops under section 163 of the Road Traffic Act and the use of strip search as part of a stop and search, two issues StopWatch highlighted in our response to the initial consultation. Disappointingly, May missed an opportunity to seriously reform section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act which has historically seen large numbers of young black men being searched with no need for suspicion.

The Metropolitan Police was repeatedly held up as a glowing example of good practice where, in the past year, overall numbers of ‘stop and search’ have decreased and the stop-to-arrest ratio has risen whilst crime has fallen. May failed to mention that amidst these alleged improvements across London, the highest rates of stop and search continue to be reported in the most deprived areas, ethnic disparity rates have barely budged and it is police in the wealthiest boroughs disproportionately targeting BME (black and ethnic minority) communities the most.

This apparent spring clean of the Met is not reflected in the experiences of young black Londoners we speak to. They feel harassed and despondent when they are stopped for reasons such as “looking confident”. In any case, when so many searches are going unrecorded, as highlighted in the London Assembly’s report on use of the power through 2012/13, a clear gap in accountability remains and optimistic reporting must be taken with a pinch of salt.

QUESTIONS: Natasha Dhumma, Stopwatch youth coordinator

Last week’s announcement showed progress and the Westminster debate included clear admission from all three main political parties that racial discrimination in stop and search exists and it is wrong – a position it is hard to believe would have gained cross-party consensus ten years ago. Then why do the wide-ranging proposals consistently fall short of substantive legislative change?

With a general election looming, a cynic might suggest this is all a play for the BME vote. Research shows the BME electorate will have a critical role in swinging marginal seats in 2015 and as such, all political parties have woken up to the issues that matter to them. In this sense Wednesday’s debate pushed all the right sentimental buttons.

May’s approach is unlikely to engender meaningful reform of ‘stop and search’. Strongly critical of the police yet lacking any legislative punch, it echoes the Scarman Report and the Macpherson Inquiry, both after which the situation steadily worsened. To fundamentally change policing, improve community relations and eliminate racial disparity in ‘stop and search’ more ambition is needed. Braver reforms could include broadening the ‘outcomes’ framework, shifting the focus from specific sanctions resulting from a search to things like increased reporting of crime from communities that have been negatively impacted by policing. This could inspire real changes to police behaviour and a justice system that truly serves minority communities.

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