Serious questions are being asked about the use of stop-and-search by the Metropolitan Police during the Covid-19 lockdown and they are not going to go away. The issue was raised at Mayor’s Question Time yesterday by Florence Eshalomi, who is now MP for Vauxhall as well as London Assembly Member for Lambeth & Southwark. Eshalomi is generally supportive of Sadiq Khan, but her question for him was quite stern:
The Met Police’s use of stop and search has dramatically increased during the lockdown. Stop and search is a contentious method of policing as people from BAME backgrounds are more likely to be stopped. Members of the BAME community have felt that during this lockdown that the police have been especially overzealous. What is being done to ensure that police officers are being reasonable and measured in their approach?
It is notable that a Labour politician known for measured judgements felt such a challenge justified. The Mayor drew on personal experience to recognise “the negative impact the widespread us of stop-and-search can have” and laid out its damaging effects when “done badly”. He said he has been “working with the police to end the very worst practices of stop-and-search”, describing body-worn cameras as “a game-changer” in terms of creating confidence and adding that when “intelligence-led” the tactic “can be effective” for “taking drugs and weapons off our streets”.
However, he acknowledged that it is “concerning that negative experiences of the use of stop-and-search in London within BAME communities seem to have got worse during the coronavirus epidemic”. He added that he has asked his deputies for policing and community engagement to draw up an “action plan for improving confidence, transparency and accountability”. Eshalomi told him that in Lambeth there had been over 5,500 cases of stop-and-search in the three months of the lockdown. She expressed anxiety about relationships between the police and young people in the coming summer months and also about “the growing use of tasers” by police.
Eshalomi was not alone in raising these issues in a major political forum yesterday. The Commons home affairs committee resumed its suspended investigations into how police services have performed against the recommendations of the Macpherson report, published in 1999. Its members heard powerful evidence, some of it relating to the Met’s handling of the recent Black Lives Matters protests.
Representatives of Liberty spoke of “evident ethnic disproportionality” in the way police services across the country had deployed their wide discretionary powers during lockdown and highlighted vague definitions of offences, hurried changes to regulations, inconsistencies, and the difficulty of contesting on-the-spot the fines.
One of them, Rosalind Comyn, said “Liberty is very concerned at how recent protests have been policed, particularly in London and at the Black Lives Matter protest…there were reports that the police were demanding personal details of protesters as a condition for letting people leave the confines of a police kettle, and that reportedly happened three nights in a row. If those reports are correct their actions were unlawful and it is concerning that they were repeated actions.”
Nick Glynn of Open Society Foundations criticised the use of police horses in London in Whitehall, saying they are “a catalyst for more disorder rather than calming things down”. Glynn contrasted this with a Black Lives Matter event in Nottingham he had attended where the police presence was “almost invisible” and the whole event very well run.
Speaking of the situation nationally, he described as “a retrograde step” the increase in the use of stop-and-search made possible by the police being less busy than usual and “disproportionately of course against black and Asian people.” He expressed shock at seeing the latest Met figures. “They have gone up by tens of thousands in a couple of months,” he said. “It’s an incredible increase and the vast majority of them are for drugs, they’re not for weapons, and it makes you wonder what their priorities really are.”
Ben Bowling, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at King’s College made the general observation of police powers that “where discretion is broadest you find the highest degree of discrimination”. He observed: “It seems that policing by consent is reserved for those parts of the country that are more rural, more suburban, and that policing by coercion is a pattern which is experienced by urban communities, those of working-class or poor communities and those with high proportions of black and minority ethnic communities, but also when people of colour leave the urban areas to go to those places that are more rural or more suburban. They seem to be seen as ‘out of place’ and are subject to higher degrees of coercive policing.”
And Katrina Ffrench of StopWatch (which Bowling is also a member of) spoke of “key workers being picked on” due to a perception that if they were on the streets they must be “up to no good”. She said values of “discretion and reasonableness” seemed to simply not apply “when you are young and black. It doesn’t seem to apply when you are living in areas of social and economic deprivation. It feels as if in those times you are actually going to be targeted by the police.”
Ffrench added: “I want to touch just briefly on the protests we saw in London. We had the Far Right come out in London at the weekend and I didn’t see the police adopting the heavy-handed approach [they took] to the Black Lives Matter protesters” Communities felt that “some people, really vile people in our society, were allowed to walk on the streets of London, make Nazi salutes, urinate on memorials, and denigrate London as a city, and the police in a sense stood by and did nothing,” she said.
Plenty there to think about: plenty for Cressida Dick, and plenty for the Mayor.
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