Historians' Watch

Stop and search and the politics of policing

Metropolitan Police. Wikimedia Commons.

This article accompanies Jonah Miller’s new History Workshop Journal article, ‘The Touch of the State: Stop and Search in England, c.1660–1750 – which is open access.

These are strange times in the politics of the police. Things were simpler in the 1980s: Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government increased officers’ wages and backed them against all forms of protest and disorder; Labour members of the Greater London Council called for the full democratisation of policing. Now, Labour MPs and the Mayor of London routinely call for more police spending, high-ranking officers are quoted in left-leaning newspapers criticising Tory politicians, and the battle-lines have blurred, as all sides blame each other for soaring rates of knife crime.

One of the most alarming recent developments was the revelation that senior police and Home Office staff have discussed removing the requirement for ‘reasonable grounds’ before an officer can stop and search a member of the public. This proposal, swiftly disowned by the government, would have given constables enormous discretionary power. The prejudice or unconscious bias of an individual officer would become sufficient grounds for stopping someone in the street and rummaging through their bags, pockets and clothes.

The problem of police discretion is a very old one. In London, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, constables and night watchmen followed their patriarchal impulses to stop and search any woman they encountered walking the streets after dark. In the 1970s – to leap forward over a largely unwritten history – officers indulged their racialised instincts to use the power against people they found ‘walking while black’. In 1981, they did this on a massive scale in Brixton as part of Operation Swamp 81. Riots ensued.

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 was supposed to solve the discretion problem by introducing the demand for ‘reasonable grounds’. Someone’s ethnicity did not count as a legitimate cause of suspicion; there had to be clear evidence of criminal activity or intent. As numerous studies have shown, however, officers continued to discriminate, simply finding other explanations for their suspicions – clothing, time, neighbourhood, manner of walking. The situation was made worse by the introduction, under New Labour, of the Terrorism Act (2000), which allowed searches without reasonable grounds in areas deemed under imminent threat. Parts of the Act were later found to violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

Just as New Labour’s policies on policing were very different to those of their 1980s predecessors, the Tories who came into power in 2010 deviated strikingly from Thatcher’s line. Policing was a public service which, like all other public services, had to be cut in times of austerity. As Home Secretary, Theresa May oversaw a spectacular reduction in the number of stops and searches carried out each year. Occasionally, she claimed anti-racism as a motive, but her driving force was the fact that mass stop and search was an enormous – and expensive – waste of police time and resources. As activists have long argued, and as recent research has made irrefutably clear, stop and search neither deters nor detects crime on any meaningful scale.

Thankfully, there is to be no scrapping of ‘reasonable grounds’, but an increase in the use of stop and search remains on the cards. An unlikely and uneasy alliance led by Sajid Javid and Sadiq Khan is pushing for more ‘intelligence-led’ use of the power. What this actually means is not clear, but early indicators suggest there will be no easy escape from the problems of the past. For example, ‘intelligence-led’ policing based on the Metropolitan Police’s ‘Gang Matrix’ has resulted in officers repeatedly stopping and searching people against whom there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, almost all of those people are black. If there is a way to make stop and search work fairly, let alone effectively, this is not it.

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