The public order bill is currently in its final stages. The bill’s provisions include adjustments to public order, police functions, and protest-related activities legislation. It also includes new ‘suspicion-less’ stop and search powers to allow the police to stop and search where they suspect anyone may be carrying equipment that might assist in an illegal protest. Most of the discussion about the bill’s provisions centred on the curtailment of the right to protest and the increased police powers to intervene, even before a protest has commenced. This article focuses on the impact of the stop and search provisions and their potential to further increase police racial discrimination.
Powers to stop and search without suspicion
The proposed section 10, “[p]owers to stop and search without suspicion”, cover the circumstances in which “a police officer of or above the rank of inspector” can authorise stop and search. The provisions would allow the police to search people who individually may not be under suspicion, but are in an area where the police think an illegal protest or gathering has been planned. For example, if police heard of an event to block a motorway, they could stop and search all the individuals in cars in the vicinity of the motorway. The police would not need to articulate and account for their suspicion of each person individually.
Protections against random stop and searches include the specificity of the geographical area in which they can be applied, the seniority of the rank authorising them, and the retention of the power for a maximum of 24 hours.
Most of the circumstances in the bill are very specific: road blocks, tunnelling, and ‘locking on’, for example. Although these activities might curtail the right to protest, and we might have concerns about how the police will use their powers, these examples do not lend themselves to racially motivated policing. However, they are not exclusive, and the risk of racial profiling and discrimination comes from extending stop and search to all sorts of activities, none of which need be related to protest or climate change. It is unlikely that once the powers are in place, they will be used solely for those actions listed in the bill or accompanying notes.
In addition to the examples given above is the inclusion of the catch-all category “an offence under section 78 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022”, which refers to intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance. This section criminalises “obstruct[ing] the public or a section of the public in the exercise or enjoyment of a right that may be exercised or enjoyed by the public at large”. This would enable the police to stop and search anyone in any gathering who was ‘reckless’ as to the impact a group might have on the enjoyment of others. This could easily include parties, raves, street gatherings, or protests. The proposed powers do require a police officer at inspector level to authorise searching in the area in question, but this is a very low level of decision making.
Stop and search as an ineffective tool
Stop and search powers require “reasonable grounds” to suspect the person is carrying drugs, weapons, stolen property, or tools for committing crimes (for example, a crowbar). It is primarily used for drugs and weapons. The new provisions would extend the list to any ‘equipment’ that could be used for any sort of protest or disturbance.
Home Office commissioned research by Tiratelli, Quinton and Bradford in 2018 showed that stop and search neither prevented nor deterred knife or drug crime. Its disproportionate use against black people impacted badly on race relations, and resistance to its unfair application often led to criminal charges and greater loss of respect for the law. The greater the use of stop and search, the lower its arrest rate.
The police inspectorate has consistently criticised stop and search practices, including in 2015 when they found that 15% of searches were illegal, a higher rate of illegal activity amongst the police officers carrying out the searches than that of those searched – just 7%.
All this – the statistics, inspectorate reports and research – led to improved police practice and the “Best use of Stop and Search” (BUSS) scheme under Theresa May as home secretary. On her watch stop and search reduced from 1,229,324 instances in 2010 to 279,2788 in 2018. The reduction had no adverse effects on crime.
A change for the worse
First with Priti Patel as home secretary and more recently with Suella Braverman came a policy reversal. The BUSS scheme was side-lined then abandoned with a return to the free for all – so long as it complied with the law – and then stop and search was extended to searching any person known to have committed a knife crime. Like many aspects of home office policy, political expediency has overridden effectiveness or long term benefits. The numbers of searches have risen, without any discernable impact on crime detection or deterrence.
Why the police cannot be trusted to implement the legislation fairly
Stop and search has been used as an exercise in individual police power rather than a policing tool, and lack of control and oversight on how officers on the street are behaving has exacerbated concerns.
Baroness Casey’s report, which spells out in detail the racist, homophobic and misogynist nature of the Met police and the inability of the most senior officers to get a grip on the problem and turn the force around, was published on 22 March, the same day that the House of Commons rejected the proposed House of Lords amendments to the public order bill. Amendments included to raise the level of seniority for authorisation of stop and search, and to reduce the timescale to 12 hours; simple protections that would have ensured the police could not implement searches without first pausing to consider if they were the right tool in the circumstances.
The Met does not represent all policing and other police forces have taken a very different approach to stop and search in the past. However, given that London is the focus of much of the country’s protest activity, and as our capital likely to remain so, it is especially important that the force most responsible for implementing the legislation can be trusted. Additionally, 50% of all stop and searches in England and Wales are already carried out in London. The Met police should not be given new powers to stop and search when they have yet to show they can responsibly implement the ones they already have. This new legislation will increase the risk of racist and discriminatory policing.