Criminal Justice and Minority Groups:
A critical assessment of the question to what extent police stop and search powers may impact on trust and confidence in the police service with particular reference to the notion of ‘overpolicing’
The use of stop and search by the police, according to the definition on the website of the Metropolitan Police London, is an instrument to tackle crime and anti- social behaviour, and to prevent more serious crimes occurring (Metropolitan Police UK, 2009), though for many people being stopped and searched it just seems pure harassment, even racial harassment. This essay shall weigh out the pros and cons of stop and search with particular reference to ‘overpolicing’ and with regard to racism as a reason for stops and searches. Furthermore, it will analyse the impact of police stop and search powers on the public’s trust and confidence in the police service.
Stops and searches generally happen in public places as, for example, around football matches or other public events where big crowds of people may lead to acts of crime or vandalism. Furthermore, in so-called ‘high crime areas’, mainly in inner cities, stops, searches and raids regularly take place. The police must have a ‘good reason’ - as it says on the Metropolitan police website – to stop and search someone. Reasons for this can be: anti-terror measures, assumptions about the ownership of weapons, drugs or stolen property, serious violence or disorder in the vicinity, or close resemblance with a wanted suspect criminal.
In opposition to this, police officers or community support officers are not allowed to stop (and search) a person solely because of his/her age, race, ethnic background, nationality, faith, the spoken language, or previous criminal records (Metropolitan Police UK, 2009). So as a logic consequence, the ‘good reason’ for a stop and search does imply a suspicion against a special person being stopped. Otherwise put, if someone is stopped because of his skin colour or ethnic origin , this must imply that he is suspicious only because of this and that is a clear act of racism. Nonetheless, the Home Office advises people who are being stopped by the police to give information about their ethnic origin to the officers in order to enable the Home Office to monitor ‘disproportionate stopping of ethnic minorities’ (Home Office, 2009). This sounds a bit strange as it also says on the Home Office website that you are not obliged to give your name, address or date of birth during a stop and search measure, unless you are being reported for an offence. So, this implies, your name, address and date of birth are part of your personality rights which you are allowed to protect, but your ethnic identity is not?
In a report by the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) the practice of stop-and-search is said to be “influenced by racial bias”, whereby the force continues to support this practice, although being concerned about the ‘disproportionality’. The stop-and-search rates of Blacks as well as of Asian people in London increased by 30 respectively 41 per cent between 2001 and 2002, while for Whites it merely increased by 8 per cent (BBC, 2004). Black people are four times more likely to be stopped than people of other ethnic groups and, furthermore, 49 per cent of West Indians using a vehicle reported that they had been stopped by the police (Holdaway, 1996, p.86).
One of the most used explanations of the police to justify their high levels of stops, searches and raids of black, Asian or ethnic minority people is that these ethnic groups were more involved in criminal acts than others (Holdaway, 1996, p.84-85) and therefore they needed to be stopped more often. The 2003 Home Office survey on minority ethnic groups and crime, does not support these assumptions. Here, the statistical figures show, for instance, the percentage committing any offence and any serious offence in their lifetime by ethnic group (2003) with the following results: Any offence: White – 42% compared to Mixed Ethnic Origin – 39%, Asian – 21%, Black – 28%and Other Ethnic Origin – 23%. Numbers for any serious offence: White – 21% compared to Mixed – 26%, Asian – 11%, Black – 14% and Other – 10% (Sharp, Budd, 2005). Obviously, Whites are involved in the Criminal Justice System most often. So, the allegation of the police used as a justification to stop, for instance, Blacks or Asians, is obsolete and wrong. Even more, it is racist.
Looking at the population numbers of the United Kingdom by ethnicity in 2001, it can be assumed that a total of all non-White ethnic groups of 7.9 per cent might not be the (only) reason for a criminal Great Britain. It is hard to believe that 4.635,296 people are able to endanger the British society so much more than the white majority of 54.153,898 (figures by National Statistics Online, 2004).
Racist motivated incidents during police stops and searches or raids do happen regularly as several examples can prove (Gumbhir, 2007, p.1-6). Gordon describes police passport raids and checks at homes and workplaces of, for example, African and Bangladeshi people (Gordon, 1983, p.35-38). Holdaway found that police stop and search exercises often happen “within areas of high minority ethnic settlement, disproportionately exposing people from those minorities to an infringement of their liberty” (Holdaway, 1996, p.19-20).
Another form of racism is ‘passivity’, which means, the police take no action in favour of a person of minority ethnic descent, although he/she is asking for help as a victim of crime or is making a complaint. Virdee describes several cases of miscarriages by the police towards ethnic minority people who were in need of the police’s help (Virdee, 1995, p. 33-38). The indirect police harassment of ethnic minority people who have made a complaint about them being stopped is characterized by several steps: non-response, delay, unwillingness to investigate or prosecute, defining criminal assaults as non-criminal and giving misleading advice (for example to take civilaction). These problems were identified in the GLC (Greater London Council) Inquiry to Racial Harassment, 1982 (Bowling, 1998, p.89). A citizen experiencing these humiliations will have a good reason of losing his confidence in the police or the Criminal Justice System.