Stop and search race disparity revealed


To those that have been fighting to reform stop and searches and policing practices that value personal face-value judgment above a standard practice, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) report for 2016/2017 finding that white people are more likely to be carrying drugs than black people when stopped and searched, is not surprising.

The HMICFRS analysis, contained within its annual report on policing legitimacy, assessed 8,574 stop and search records for the reasonableness of the recorded ground for a stop and search, as well as the ethnicity of the person detained, and whether the item searched for was found.

According to the report, one in four black people searched for drugs were found to be carrying them, compared with one in three white people. However, black people are more than eight times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched.

Since the last data from the 2015/2016 period, the overall number of stop and searches has fallen 21% to 303,845 in 2016-2017. But while stops of white people dropped by 28%, for black and minority ethnic people stops fell by just 11%. Moreover, from the onset, black and minority ethnic individuals are more likely to be primed for stop and searches, with the disproportionality increasing to BAME individuals being 4 times more likely to be frisked than white people.

Racial disproportionality persisted in cases where grounds for the search included the smell of cannabis; however, the smell of cannabis alone does not normally justify a search. In fact, unless reinforced by further grounds for “reasonable suspicion” that the person frisked is carrying drugs, the smell of cannabis alone is not an acceptable reason to stop and search. However, 7% of surveyed police officers reported that they used the smell of cannabis as sole ground to stop and frisk a person. Moreover, London black people are charged for possession of cannabis at 5 times the rate of white people. For cannabis warnings the rate is 3 times. This jump in disproportionality at the charge stage demonstrates that black people are more likely to receive a harsher police response for possession of cannabis.

It is not unimaginable that the use of stop and search on black people might be based on weaker grounds for suspicion than its use on white people, especially when it comes to drugs. This sort of disproportionality is either a result of a conscious or subconscious bias; particularly because the numbers do not justify—and have never justified—the use of stop and search on black people more than white people. Moreover, the effectiveness of stop and search techniques are generally doubtful, as they disproportionally target a population that is less likely to be carrying drugs in the first place.

In fact, the last report from Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law, was based on data collected from the Ministry of Justice and the Metropolitan Police Service records up to 2014. When compared to Release’s numbers, 2017’s preliminary analyses demonstrate that stop and searches are not only ineffective, but racial disproportionality has actually increased, dispelling the myth that policing institutions have put in effort to work against racial discrimination.

Stop and search has generally increased steadily since 2001/2002 from less than 750,000 to more than one million stop searches carried out in 2011/12 and 50% or more of these searches are for drugs.

As Lee Jasper points out for the Guardian, there is a hypocrisy gap between the official aim of stop and search techniques and who these actually benefit. More often than not the police and politicians will cite that in order to tackle knife and gun crime it is necessary to use stop and search techniques. As Jasper underlines, the reality is that the vast number of stop searches are for drugs and, as evidenced by the HMIC report, most searches are aimed at detecting low level drug possession offences. With drugs being the primary focus of these stop and searches, coupled with a partial bias that disadvantages black and ethnic minority youth, this technique does not benefit at all those it claims to be “protecting”.

In 2010, black people were stopped and searched for drugs at 6.3 times the rate of white people, compared to 8 times the rate of white people just a mere seven years after. In 2009/10 half the 280,000 drug stop searches carried out by the Metropolitan police were on young people aged 21 years or below. Almost 16,900 were of children aged 15 or below.

When tackling higher level drug possession, such as cocaine, black people in London who are caught in possession of it are charged—not cautioned—at a much higher rate than white people. In 2009/10 the Metropolitan Police charged 78% of black people caught in possession of cocaine compared with 44% of whites. Black people are subject to court proceedings for drug possession offences 4.5 times the rate of whites; are found guilty of this offence at 4.5 times the rate; and are subject to immediate custody at a rate of 5.0 times that of white people.

But this statistically recorded racial bias has not gone unnoticed by prominent law reform activists.

Carson Arthur, of the campaign group StopWatch, said the disproportionality in the use of stop and search reflected its history as a tactic employed in conjunction with drug laws to disrupt and control black and minority ethnic communities in Britain.

The Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy, said the figures were shocking. He told the Guardian: “We cannot continue to have different policing for different communities – it is inherently unfair – and so these figures suggesting that we are actually going backwards are deeply alarming.”


Maria Julia Pieraccioni