Our new Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and his authoritarian Home Secretary Priti Patel seem to be gearing up for a general election by throwing some red meat to the Tory right in the form of a crack-down on law and order. We could be in for a truly nightmarish regime of the sort we had left behind in the 1970’s
In another arguably populist pre-election move, Johnson and Patel announced that police would be freer to carry out preventive stop-and-search operations under so-called section 60 powers.Guardian 12th August 2019
Stop and search is a controversial tactic and its efficacy on a large scale is in doubt. A Home Office study of its increased use in London when Johnson was mayor found no evidence it had contributed to reducing crime levels.
The spectre Johnson and Patel seem to want to unleash was known as “SUS” in the 1970’s – short for “Suspected person”. The SUS laws gave the police to power to stop and search anyone they suspected of being about to commit a crime. Actually the official justification in the 1970’s was if the police considered the person to be in breach of section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, which basically meant that the police could randomly stop and search anyone at will. These days the justification will be different, the so-called “Section 60”, but the result will be the same.
SUS was very unpopular as might be expected and caused a huge level of social tension. Needless to say racist officers used it to target ethic minority communities and frankly, didn’t make much of a secret of it.
The justification this time is the rise on youth violence, knife crime etc. Now if the police were sensible, they would only use the stop search powers to look for weapons, but of course they won’t, they’ll use it as a way to intimidate and oppress. At least, that’s how it will be seen.
The big problem of course, now as it was then, is cannabis. Searching for cannabis is like fishing in a bucket in some areas, you’re almost guaranteed to find some. This will inevitably mean a lot of people will come into conflict with the police.
Much has been written about the corrosive effects of random stop search, but I have my own story to tell, which I hope will go some way to explain why I see it as such a stupid idea.
In 1976 at age 22 I had just finished university when I moved to London – Finsbury Park – to start a career job at the BBC, I’m white incidentally, that shouldn’t be important but it is. Now from this it’s obvious I was not from the section of society most alienated by SUS, that most targeted by it, but I did have long hair and was a bit of a hippy. So over the next four years I had several run-ins with the police who clearly saw me as someone not from the mainstream. When I was stopped I would go through a humiliating process of being talked to sharply by the police and very publicly searched in the street. The police would go through my pockets and rifle through my wallet, reading things I had in there. I found this an extremely degrading experience and I lost count of how many times I had to endure it.
They were looking for cannabis and made that clear, needless to say they never found anything, I suppose I was a bit too savvy for that and it shows how pointless the whole exercise was.
I had several issues with London during my four years there and the aggressive nature of the police was only one of them, but it was a significant factor in my decision to quit my job and to relocate back to Norwich, I really can’t overstate the effect stop and search had on me, I felt humiliated and genuinely at risk from the police. Indeed, by the end I was deeply suspicious of them and regarded them as a threat. It should be noted that prior to all this, I had never had dealing with the police, had never been in trouble of any kind.
So I returned to Norwich in 1980 and for some time after I would cross the road rather than walk past a policeman. With time I learned they weren’t the threat the London Met had been and my fear subsided. I am not by nature anti police, far from it but that was the feeling SUS created within me and obviously it did the same for many people. That is how dangerous and destructive this sort of Tactic can be. Would I have called the police if I needed help? No, not a chance.
Of course, for the kids – especially black kids – coming into contact with this sort of thing it must have been far, far worse than I experienced. Unlike me they couldn’t just walk away and leave it behind. It was no surprise the lid eventually blew with widespread riots in 1981. That could easily happen again.
Cannabis is the problem because it’s so common yet illegal and so provides the perfect excuse for the “let’s see if I can find something to do you for” school of policing. The effect of this will simply be to make the police the enemy in the eyes of the very section of population we need to be building bridges with. It is utterly, utterly counter productive, the sort of thing only an idiot politician would propose. Sadly it looks like Johnson and Patel really are that stupid.
The thing is, the whole point of doing this sort of policing is supposedly to protect the vulnerable young people getting caught up in gang battles and things like county lines, this is a safeguarding exercise first and foremost.. The idea is surely to protect these kids and to do that the police must be seen as being on their side, trustworthy and there to help with serious problems.
But what if in a high profile way the police confined their searches to weapons, or maybe weapons and heroin and cocaine? Would that produce the same hatred and fear? I suspect not. I would suggest that, if it were done politely people wouldn’t object to searches if they were seen as being done for genuine protection reasons, to help them rather than seeking conflict.
“It’s a weapons search mate, we’re not after your stash” would go a long way. Cannabis enforcement cannot be a part of widespread stop and search or we’ll pay a dear price.