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Stop and search reform: a meaningful makeover?

Thursday 04-12-2014 - 12:39

The Home Secretary announced this week that all police forces have implemented the Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme or are in the process of doing so. A welcome development, but we wait with interest to see whether this will result in real improvements to the experiences of those most targeted by this intrusive police power.

This is a guest blog from Natasha Dhumma, Stop and Search Programme Coordinator at Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs, the law and human rights

 Y-Stop is a new stop and search project to develop training to help young people handle their police interactions in a safe manner that will not get them into further trouble. This exciting and innovative project has been developed in partnership with a Release, StopWatch and UK Fully Focused and has involved us regularly attending youth clubs, schools and colleges across the country to speak with young people about their experiences and views of stop and search. We hear stories of police racism and bullying, of humiliation and embarrassment, of frustration and anger at being treated as a criminal. Anyone who has been stopped and searched will no doubt identify with these feelings that come with being pulled aside by the police, knowing that passers-by see you as guilty regardless of the outcome of the search (besides, they probably won’t stick around long enough to find out). Stop and search affects younger children too, many under 10’s share negative first interactions with the police, of being in need of protection but treated like a criminal or liar.  Fast forward a few years and that disappointment turns to deep mistrust and hatred. It becomes almost impossible for a young person to respond politely and calmly in the absence of fairness where reasons as arbitrary as ‘looking confident’ warrant a search.

Those experiences, played out time and time again throughout adolescence, turns into self-doubt as they wonder if something about them is intrinsically suspicious. For young Black people, who are six times more likely to be stopped and search than a white person, it also cultivates negative perceptions of Black people as criminals. The evidence base for this common myth is weak at best, in fact Release research published in 2013 shows that BME groups are more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs in spite of being less likely to use them.

Y-Stop is a result of these conversations. The whole project, its material and training have been developed by young people themselves so it responds directly to their needs. Rather than a know-your-rights approach relying on them remembering laws and facts in a stressful situation, it focuses on practical communication and behavioural skills that helps them to manage police interactions. We are also engaging the wider community to provide much needed support for young people; over the coming months we will be launching a parents’ guide to this end; an app to help young people report a stop and search and make complaints either formally or anonymously if needs be; a platform to upload videos of their stop and searches; and a film demonstrating how they can influence the outcome. Combined, we hope these tools will strengthen young people’s confidence and ability to deal with stop and search as well as encourage them to challenge unprofessional police behaviour where needed.

The numbers are improving but drilling further into them, in London at least, the highest rates continue to be reported in the most deprived areas and ethnic disparity rates remain stubbornly high, especially in the wealthiest boroughs. Stop and search draws together issues of race, class, poverty and social control. Tight scrutiny over how the Best Use scheme is implemented, ensuring that builds community confidence and engagement is key, but when their trust in police is so damaged, perhaps more important is equipping young people with the tools to effect change themselves.

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