Tuesday 24 May 2022
In April, Crest hosted a roundtable discussion to mark the launch of our research project, Stop and Search: the evidence. The aim of our research is to bridge the evidence gap in the current debate on the use of stop and search powers. Through focus groups, opinion polling and interviews with experts and practitioners, we will examine the views of the public, particularly Black communities. We aim to unravel what the public thinks about the use of stop and search powers and how public views reflect wider experiences and opinions of the police.
Moderated and chaired by the Director of British Future, Sunder Katwala, who is also a Crest Associate, our roundtable brought together a range of experts and influential figures to explore how our research can make a fresh contribution to a familiar debate, credibly and critically exploring disproportionality, stop and search and the perspectives from Black communities across England and Wales.
Adultification and incorporating the voice of young Black children
Our discussion started with a focus on ‘adultification’ bias - where Black children are perceived and treated as being older and more mature than they are. This is a key area of research, and is being explored in the UK by Jahnine Davis and the Listen Up organisation, among others.
Participants in the discussion said adultification stems from racism and is related to or is the cause of disproportionality within stop and search. Questions were raised over how that makes Black children feel about their safety, particularly when they engage with police, and how easy it is for them to access safeguarding support. The case of the 15-year-old girl known as Child Q, who was strip searched at school, formed part of the conversation, as did ‘Safer Schools’ initiatives, leading to questions about the boundaries of relationships between police and young people, especially within schools.
Stop and search: a lightning rod and a litmus test
Stop and Search was seen by those who took part in our discussion as a lightning rod and a litmus test. It was said to be a lightning rod for criticism and controversy in the wider policing and criminal justice system around issues of disproportionality, the police’s response to vulnerability, police legitimacy and representation, and police engagement with minority communities. And it was a litmus test for levels of trust and confidence.
Participants gave different accounts about the way stop and search is used, for example, to enforce laws on drug possession or to prevent violent crime. One person said the police often use search powers as a means of controlling public spaces such as parks, shopping precincts, housing estates and high streets. That view was echoed by comments from another participant that the public do not receive the full picture from the police about stop and search. It was agreed that communities need greater insight into how the powers are applied in their local area. Variations in police force leadership were said to explain regional differences in the use of stop and search, with senior officers seen as influencing the ‘who, what, where, why and how’.
Legitimacy and fairness
Police legitimacy and perceptions of fairness, in the context of stop and search, were discussed, with an emphasis on procedural justice and the use of the powers. One participant said the Metropolitan Police has a particular and unique culture around stop and search, including a greater reliance on proactive searches generated by officers rather than reactive searches in response to emerging crime demands. West Midlands Police and Bedfordshire Police were identified as examples of good practice.
The public’s assessment of the police, in terms of lawfulness, effectiveness and fairness, was said to be based not just on one-off encounters but also the history of communities in relation to policing. The costs and benefits of policing were discussed in the context of varying police cultures, in force areas, neighbourhood policing teams and specialist units such as the Metropolitan Police Territorial Support Group (TSG). One participant reflected that police defensiveness around stop and search was in part due to “white fragility” - a perception of discomfort among White people when they are confronted with racial inequality. That participant highlighted the challenges in drawing out attitudes that are racist or dismissive of racism, with police supervisors not recognising or talking through such attitudes with officers.
The relationship between policing and Black communities
A decline in the level of neighbourhood policing was also identified by participants as a cause of a deterioration in the relationship between some communities and police. One contributor argued that it is harder for police officers unfamiliar with an area to apply discretion in the use of search powers or to have a genuinely intelligence-led approach.
However, police community support officers (PCSOs) were highlighted as helping to build trust with communities. PCSOs are civilian staff, typically tasked with fostering good relations between people in local areas and the police. Their responsibilities include liaising between communities and the local force, working with residents to resolve problems and improving public confidence and a sense of safety. Operation Trident was also cited as a policing initiative which had helped to build up trust. It was set up in 1998 by the Metropolitan Police to tackle gun crime and homicides which disproportionately affected London’s African-Caribbean communities.
Projects in which local communities were fully involved were seen as vital to improving confidence in policing. Participants agreed that in some cases the police’s understanding of communities had narrowed to a focus on crime, which meant officers immediately became suspicious because of what someone might be wearing or how they reacted to the presence of police. Officers were not sensitive to cultural norms or the wider local context.
Representation was highlighted as an additional issue, with police forces not looking like the communities they are policing. However, that view was challenged by one participant who argued that representation was not what was needed if the culture of policing itself did not change. When reflecting on the relationship between policing and Black communities, and what future relationships could look like, this participant said the ideal was not for Black communities to have more relationships with the police, a better relationship with the police, or even any relationship at all but for Black communities to be treated the same as White or middle class communities. No dedicated relationship needs to exist, the contributor said, simply an expectation of the same quality of service and treatment from the police.
The participants were clear that our research must not simply go over familiar ground in a debate which has often been researched and written about. Instead, Crest should give a voice to people whose views are seldom heard, in what has become a highly polarised debate, and look for practical solutions to bridge the gap between police officers and communities who may feel over-policed.
Based on suggestions made during the discussion we have decided to:
Expand our qualitative research to include group work and interviews with young people with experience of stop and search and those who live in areas where there is both a high level of violent crime and frequent use of stop and search.
Expand our poll to include the views of younger children in order to capture inter-generational differences in the population as a whole and within Black communities.
Amend our poll questions to capture experiences of trauma within policing and the use of search powers.
Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future, an independent and non-partisan think tank, which works on identity and immigration, integration and race relations, with a focus on engaging the public constructively in issues which can be polarising and divisive. He is an Associate of Crest.
Jahnine Davis is the Director and co-founder of Listen Up, an organisation which seeks to amplify marginalised voices in child safeguarding, and is recognised nationally as a leader in the field of intersectionality, adultification and safeguarding Black children and young people. Jahnine has established and led several services, including child criminal exploitation, child sexual exploitation family support programmes and youth violence interventions.
Katrina Ffrench is the Founder and Director of UNJUST C.I.C, a non-profit organisation that challenges discriminatory practices and policies within UK policing and the wider criminal justice system. As the former Chief Executive of StopWatch, and Chair of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime Stop and Search Community Monitoring Network, Katrina has extensive experience in the field of stop and search and community engagement.
Keith Fraser is Chair of the Youth Justice Board. He is also a non-executive director/trustee at the Workforce Development Trust and an advisor for the National Police Chiefs’ Council Digital Engagement Project for Young People, and Chair of Employability UK. Keith was made a Commissioner for the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in 2020 and was previously a superintendent and chief inspector in West Midlands Police.
Gavin Hales is a Senior Research Fellow at London Metropolitan University, and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Police Foundation. Gavin has extensive experience as a researcher working on policing, crime and justice issues, including studies of gun crime, the policing of cannabis possession in London, and reoffending by offenders on community orders. Dr. Kenny Monrose is a researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge and is a Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is the lead researcher on the Black British Voices Project and has many years’ experience in teaching, supervising and examining undergraduate and post-graduate students in Sociology, Behavioural Sciences and Criminology and Criminal Justice.
Dr. Rick Muir is Director of the Police Foundation, the UK’s independent policing think tank. He is a public policy researcher, working on public service reform, including on policing and criminal justice policy, at the Institute for Public Policy Research. He is currently a Visiting Professor at Northumbria University, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and a member of the Cumberland Lodge Police Steering Committee.
Dr. Victor Olisa is a former Metropolitan Police chief superintendent. With over 35 years’ experience across three UK forces Victor has engaged in a wide range of policing roles. Victor spent three years at the Home Office where he worked on projects on stop and search and race in the criminal justice system; he was also responsible for briefing and supporting the Attorney General and the Minister of State.
Rhiannon Sawyer is Assistant Director for London’s Violence Reduction Unit, and has extensive experience working to safeguard young people and communities. She has previously worked as the Head of the National Policing Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme for Norfolk and Suffolk Police where she helped to identify and promote emerging innovative practice. Rhiannon has led on work across domestic violence, sexual and criminal exploitation, serious violence, destitution and other types of vulnerability.