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Why we need to empower and educate young people about stop and search

At a recent event attendees heard how the work of the Stop & Search Legal Project is paying dividends, but there are still challenges ahead for those working to combat discrimination and improve the relationship between police and young people.

In the aftermath of the 2011 ‘London riots’ many young people voiced their anger about their treatment by police. Racial imbalance in the use of stop and search and repeated misuse and abuse of these powers were a common complaint. It became clear that much more needed to be done to educate and empower young people about their rights, particularly in relation to stop and search. With this aim the Stop & Search Legal Project (SSLP) was set up in 2012 to help young people become more familiar with the law and the legal system. The project also wanted to push for an end to the use of racial profiling by police exercising stop and search powers and reduce the negative impacts this practice has on affected communities.

In its first few years SSLP has achieved a great deal. The project delivers up to three workshops a month, successfully reaching out to schools and youth centres to educate young people about their rights, including who can stop them, where, when, on what basis and how. They run “demystifying law” legal experience placements aimed at young people not in education, training or work and / or from disadvantaged backgrounds and have also given evidence about stop and search to the Greater London Authority.

Earlier this month a range of speakers, including researchers, lawyers and young people, addressed new and potential SSLP volunteers, discussing the latest developments in policing, the effectiveness of the SSLP’s work and future challenges.

Adam Elliott-Cooper, an academic and former youth worker who researches the way that black communities in the UK are organising to address policing issues, highlighted the importance of using discussions about policing to engage young people in social issues. He also raised the negative impact of Operation Shield, a new scheme that is being trialled by the Metropolitan Police in three London boroughs. Currently in its early stages, the scheme is aimed at targeting individuals identified as ‘gang members’, allowing them to be punished for criminal action carried out by others within the same gang.

As Elliott-Cooper pointed out, this undermines the requirement of ‘reasonable suspicion’ towards an individual that would usually govern both stops and searches and arrests. He raised serious concerns about how use of these powers could disproportionately affect and criminalise black people, with 78.2% of those listed on the Metropolitan Police’s Gang Matrix being black, compared to around 13% of the London population. This is particularly concerning in in the absence of a clear method for identifying gang members, the fact that many categorised as such do not have criminal convictions, and conversely, a tendency not to categorise white organised crime as “gang related,” highlighted by academics such as Patrick Williams and Lee Bridges.

The theme of racial discrimination was also picked up by another speaker, criminal defence lawyer Cecilia Goodwin, who noted that, “Simply put, if you are young, black and male you are disproportionately likely to be stopped and searched.” Journalist Glenn McMahon went on to talk about how best to equip young people to deal with police contact, saying, “We want them to feel empowered, but we don’t want them to escalate the situation.”

SSLP sessions encourage young people to recognise the difference between police officers, who have the power to conduct stops and searches, and PCSOs who do not, as well as requesting information that the police are required to give before a search is carried out. McMahon noted in his speech that the realisation that a young person is aware of his or her rights can sometimes, in itself, make the police conducting a search a little more respectful.

He went on to explain that many young people wrongly believe they have to give their name and address during a stop and search. By withholding this information, the young person can take control of the situation and avoid giving unnecessary details; although, as SSLP’s sessions also point out, this may need to be weighed against the potential advantages of having a record against the person’s name if they wish to complain about the frequency of searches. Another common misconception is that it is generally unlawful to film officers: the sessions address this by showing a video clip in which Haringey Borough Commander Victor Olisa explains that in most situations this is permissible.

The audience were also invited to watch a role play where a group of youngsters returning from school are stopped by police and handcuffed by an aggressive officer. This forms part of the SSLP’s training sessions which include encouraging them to make a complaint if they have had enough of their treatment by police, while acknowledging that many young people lack faith in the complaints system for good reason. As speaker McMahon explained, the workshop is rounded off by a courtroom style debate on the pros and cons of stop and search. Wallet-sized cards with reminders of the session’s key messages are given to all participants.

Former youth commissioner for Leicestershire, Sarah Hack and, youth commissioner for police and crime in Sussex, Leticia Kayoba also took part in the event, noting that once caught in the criminal justice system, many young people felt disincentivised to improve themselves, and that young people, particularly from minority groups, continued to feel targeted. In light of these issues, leading SSLP trustee Charlotte Gerada explained that it was no longer enough simply to react to miscarriages of justice. Anger about injustices needs to be channelled by offering support and solidarity to those who are harassed and mistreated because of assumptions made about them. Gerada noted that it was incredibly powerful for young people to know there are ways of challenging stop and search, particularly in cities like London where stop and search rates are so high.

Since SSLP’s launch three years ago we have in fact seen a 40% fall in the use of stop and search in London, whilst knife crime went down by 30%. Responding to a recent rise in knife crime which bucks the long term trend, Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe called for stepping up of stop and search operations.

Although Hogan Howe’s call was accompanied by the proviso that such searches are to be carried out in a more targeted way, the points raised above about categorisation of ‘gang related’ crime means this provides little assurance that the same – or worse – discriminatory practices will not arise. And while the overall trend has been towards a reduction of the use of these powers in general, Home Office data from late 2014 showed a rise in the number of terrorism related searches, with the most marked increase relating to searches of Asians and those whose ethnicity was recorded as ‘not stated’.

Furthermore, revisions published to the Code of Practice governing the use of stop and search (PACE Code A) in December 2014 specifically provide that wearing of distinctive items of clothing or other means of identification (which can include jewellery, insignias or tattoos) can in itself provide reasonable grounds to stop and search any person believed to be a member of that group or gang, where there is reliable information or intelligence that members of that group or gang habitually wear those distinctive items and carry prohibited articles. This is a concerning development which substantially weakens the normal requirements of ‘reasonable suspicion’ and allows a wide discretion that could allow, for example, items of jewellery routinely worn by particular ethnic minority groups to be wrongly conflated with gang membership.

There are also signs that the negative impact of stop and search continues to be dismissed by many officers, with a HM Inspectorate of Constabulary Report from 2014 noting that this lack of understanding was “disappointing because getting it wrong can lead to resentment, anger and, in time, a loss of trust in the police.” It went on to register particular dissatisfaction about police leaders’ lack of progress on HMIC’s recommendation to explore the feeling of stop and search from the perspective of those who have been subjected to the use of this power, and an ongoing lack of focus on fairness in the exercise of these powers with effectiveness being unduly weighted above other criteria.

In light of both slow progress in recognising the impact of stop and search and increasingly wide powers for its exercise, the need for a project like SSLP is as great as if not greater than ever. Many of the claims against the police brought by our Civil Liberties team at HJA arise from police using stop and search where they lack reasonable grounds to suspect the person is carrying a prohibited item, have not properly explained their grounds or provided information and / or are simply rude or even aggressive in using the power. The situation may often then escalate to unjustified use of force, arrests and prosecutions, which could have been avoided had the officer approached the situation differently. This can have a catastrophic effect on the life of a young person.

Even in less extreme situations, the experience of frequent and unnecessary searches will often have negative impact on young people. Projects like SSLP are therefore to be commended for giving young people the tools to be fully aware of their rights when being stopped and searched, able to respond calmly yet assertively and to have the confidence to complain when procedures are not followed or the powers appear to be exercised in a discriminatory way.

Natalie Sedacca is a PhD Candidate in the UCL Faculty of Laws writing on behalf of Hodge Jones & Allen.