Thoughts from the criminology team

Home » Stop and search

Category Archives: Stop and search

Stop strip searching children!

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

The Metropolitan Police are under constant criticism, more than any other police force, for at least as long as I have been a criminologist. Their latest scandal began with the case of Child Q, a 15 year old girl who was strip searched in school while she was menstruating after being suspected of carrying cannabis. No drugs were found and Child Q was extremely traumatised, resulting in self-harm and a suicide attempt. Tré Ventour recently wrote a blog about Child Q, race and policing in education here but following this week’s Children’s Commissioner report, there’s so much more to discuss.

The report focussed on the Metropolitan Police who strip searched 650 children in 2 years, many (23%) of whom were searched without the presence of an appropriate adult and as we criminologists would expect, the children were disproportionately Black boys. These findings were not surprising or shocking to me, and I also know that the Metropolitan Police force are not just one bad apple in this respect. The brutal search of Child Q occurred in 2020 but incidences such as these have been happening for years.

A teenage boy aged 17 was subject to an intimate search in 2019 where the police breached a number of clauses of PACE, ultimately resulting in the boy receiving an apology and £10,000 damages for the distress caused by the unlawful actions. These actions started with basic information being withheld such as the police officer failing to identify himself and informing the boy of his rights and ended with the strip search being undertaken without an appropriate adult present, in the presence of multiple officers, without authorisation from a senior officer and with no justification for the search recorded in the officer’s pocket book. Now I understand that things may be forgotten in the moment when a police officer is dealing with a suspect but the accumulation of breaches indicates a more serious problem and a disregard to the rights of suspects in general but children more specifically.

These two cases are the cases of children who were suspected of carrying cannabis, an offence likely to be dealt with via a warning or on the spot fine. Hardly the crime of the century warranting the traumatising strip searching of children. And besides, we criminologists know that the war on drugs is a failed project. Is it about time we submit and decriminalise cannabis, save police time and suspect trauma?

What happens next is a slightly different story. Strip searching in custody is different because as well as searching for contraband, it can also be justified as a protective measure where there is a risk of self-harm or suicide. Strip searching of children by the police has risen in a climate of fear surrounding deaths in custody, and it has been reported that there could be an overuse of the practice as a result of this. When I read the report, I recalled the many conversations I have had over the years with my friend Rosie Flatman who is a practitioner who specialises in working with victims of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and other forms of abuse. Rosie has worked with many girls who have been subject to strip searches when in custody. She told me how girls would often perceive the search as punishment for being what the police believed was disruptive. That is not to say that the police were using strip searches as punishment, but that is how girls would experience it.

Girls in custody are often particularly vulnerable. Like Rosie’s clients, many are victims and have a number of compounding vulnerabilities such as mental ill health or they may be looked after children. Perhaps then, we need to look at alternatives to strip searching but also custody for children, particularly for those who have suffered trauma. Rosie, who has delivered training to various agencies, suggests only undertaking strip searches where absolutely necessary and even then, using a trauma informed approach. She argues that even the way the procedure and justification is explained can make a big difference to the amount of harm caused to vulnerable children in police custody.

A Punky Reggae Party

A photo booth on Oxford Street, London (summer 1977)

In June 1977, 45 years ago, I saw the Queen, albeit fleetingly, being driven past Piccadilly Circus en-route to Buckingham Palace for the culmination of the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I wasn’t there for the party. I was making my way to Camden Town and the rehearsal studios used by the Punk-inspired band Subway Sect, who my friend from school had joined as their drummer. The studio, part of a crumbling yard of railway buildings, some still bombed out from the War, would soon begin its transformation into trendy Camden Market. 

Punk shared an interesting crossover with Black music culture, in particular reggae. As teenagers, most of us growing up in the 70s were familiar with Blues and Tamala Motown, but reggae was new to me, especially the Heavy Dub style popular in the Jamaican community. The man largely responsible for my education was Don Letts, the House DJ at The Roxy in Neil St, Covent Garden. Originally a fruit and veg warehouse, between 1976 and 1978 the Club shot to fame/notoriety as the top Punk venue in London. The problem for the promoters was that in 1977 the scene was so embryonic there were as yet no home-grown punk records to play.  So, in the gaps between live bands, Don played what he wanted, namely reggae, which went down well with the mostly white crowd. To quote from his website: “he came to notoriety in the late 70s as the DJ that single handedly turned a whole generation of punks onto reggae”. In fact, the combination became so popular that Bob Marley’s Punky-Reggae Party released in 1977 as a 12 inch (Jamaica only) and as the B-side to Jamming, reached number 9 in the UK singles charts. Don’s choice of tracks from his Roxy days are captured in the critically acclaimed compilation Dread Meets The Punk Rockers Uptown (Heavenly Records).

Scroll forward a couple of years and I’m working as assistant van driver to my boss Morris, a Jamaican-born reggae fan. He was involved in the local music scene and sometimes I would help him set up a Sound System for private house parties, in and around Brixton.  We would use the work van, a sackable offence given the prestige brand name of our West End employer, but worth the risk. Think Small Axe: Lovers Rock, but with more sound gear and ganja-smoking Rastas, and you’ve got the picture.  While sometimes out of my comfort zone, it was uplifting to witness first-hand a community at one with its own identity while lobbying for change in wider society that remained indifferent at best.

It was also a time in London when the Metropolitan Police stop and search “SUS” law reigned high. I witnessed several occasions where Morris was subject to blatant racial harassment.  Once I was on a delivery to an exclusive residential part of Town. On these visits we played a game, coined by Morris, as Dropsy or Tipsy – would we be offered a Dropsy (cup of tea/coffee) or a cash tip for the delivery, typically a sofa or expensive Persian rug? The winner was the one who made the right call in advance. We parked in the street and as we got out several police officers on foot suddenly approached Morris and demanded to know what he was doing, despite the rather obvious fact he was at work. When they saw me, the situation cooled off, but the aggressive tone of the questioning was clear and present intimidation of a black man, whose only ‘offence’, while going about his legitimate business, was to be in a white, rich area. I wish I could say this was a one-off. Unfortunately, we all know that’s not the case. Another time relates to the shocking mistreatment he got crossing a picket line. The work van was kept in a British Road Services Depot at Elephant and Castle. We both turned up on the day a lightning strike had been called by the Transport and General Workers Union. I understand emotions can run high in these situations, but there was no excuse for the barrage of racial abuse he took from sections of the crowd. He brushed it off with characteristic good humour, but the episode tainted my view of trade unions ever since.

As this is a criminology blog I should probably throw in an example of real-life criminality. It happened mid-morning one Friday following a drop-off in busy Bishopsgate. Returning to the van I noticed a castor wheel on the pavement. “Looks like it’s come from one of our sofas” I remarked. It had. When we pulled back the shutter, the van was empty. Everything we’d loaded up an hour ago was gone. Sofas, walnut dressers, rugs, porcelain table lamps, all cleaned out. The castor was all that was left! Robbed in broad daylight, next to a bus stop. In panicked disbelief we asked those in the queue if they’d seen anything but we were wasting our breath. It was left to Mr Farooqui, the long-suffering Despatch floor manager, to take the heat from angry customers as he rang round to tell them the good news. Needless to say, management weren’t impressed and dished out first and final written warnings. Soon after we went our separate ways.

Meanwhile, the overlap between black and white youth culture in London was being fostered in creative ways. Rock Against Racism (RAR), founded in 1976 along with the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), a year later, were both set up to combat a surge in far-right extremism. Music, especially the cross-over between various genres including punk and reggae, was an important enabler in that it found common ground from which more overtly political discussions could take place.  I was one of the many thousands who, in April 1978, joined The Clash, Steele Pulse and others at Victoria Park, Hackney, in what was RAR’s finest hour. Also in the audience that day was Gerry Gable, the veteran anti-fascist campaigner and founder of Searchlight magazine, whose archive is hosted here at the University. I spoke to Gerry about this and he has very fond memories of the day and his role in helping it come about through his associations with both RAR and the ANL.

So, in the year of the Platinum Jubilee, has popular music culture continued as a positive force for race integration since the punky-reggae days of 77?  It’s probably a PhD project or two (dozen), but Bob Marley sums it up for me nicely:

What did you say?
Rejected by society
Treated with impunity
Protected by my dignity
I search for reality

If by the search for reality we mean certainty, then how certain are we things have changed for the better? My experience is that, on average, they have, and that music has played its precious role in bring people closer together. The key here is “on average”. If by reality we mean a search for legitimacy, there is evidence to the contrary. Differences of course remain, and there is no room for complacency. The one pledge we must agree on though is to never stop searching – for melody, for rhythm, for harmony.

Is unconscious bias a many-headed monster?

When I was fourteen, I was stopped and searched in broad daylight. I was wearing my immaculate (private) school uniform – tie, blazer, shoes… the works. The idea I went to private school shouldn’t matter, but with that label comes an element of “social class.” But racial profiling doesn’t see class. And I remember being one of those students who was very proud of his uniform. And in cricket matches, we were all dressed well. I remember there being a school pride to adhere to and when we played away, we were representing the school and its reputation that had taken years to build. And within those walls of these private schools, there was a house pride.

Yet when I was stopped, it smeared a dark mark against the pride I had. I was a child. Innocent. If it can happen to me – as a child – unthreatening – it can really happen to anyone and there’s nothing they can to stop it. Here I saw unconscious bias rear its ugly head, like a hydra – a many-headed monster (you have to admire the Greeks, you’re never stuck for a metaphor!)

If we’re to talk about unconscious bias, we must say that it only sees the surface level. It doesn’t see my BA Creative Writing nor would it see that I work at a university. But unconscious bias does see Black men in hoodies as “trouble” and it labels Black women expressing themselves as “angry.”

Unconscious bias forces people of colour to censor their dress code – to not wear Nike or Adidas in public out of fear that it increases your chances of being racially profiled. Unconscious bias pushes Black and Asians to code-switch. If a White person speaks slang, it’s cool. When we do it, it’s ghetto. That’s how I grew up and when I speak well, I’ve had responses such as “What good English you speak.” Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t.

How you speak, what you wear – all these things are scrutinised more when you don’t have White Privilege. And being educated doesn’t shield non-White people (British people of colour included) from racist and xenophobic attacks, as author Reni Eddo-Lodge says in her book:

“Children of immigrants are often assured by well-meaning parents that educational access to the middle classes can absolve them from racism. We are told to work hard, go to a good university, and get a good job.”

The police can stop and question you at any time. The search comes into play, depending on the scenario. But when I was growing up, my parents gave me The Talk – on how Black people can get hassled by police. For me, I remember my parents sitting me down at ten years old. That at some point, you could be stopped and searched at any time – from aimlessly standing on a street corner, to playing in the park. Because you are Black, you are self-analysing your every move. Every footstep, every breath.

And to be stopped and searched is to have your dignity discarded in minutes. When it happened, the officer called me Boy – like Boy was my name – hello Mr Jim Crow –  like he was an overseer and I was a slave – hands blistering in cotton fields – in the thick of southern summertime heat. Call me Boy. Call me Thug. No, Call me Target. No, slave. Yes master, no master, whatever you say master. This was not Mississippi, Selma or Spanish Town – this was Northamptonshire in the 2000s and my name is Tré.

Yes, Northamptonshire. And here in 2019, the statistics are damning. Depending on which Black background you look at, you are between six and thirteen times more likely to be stop and searched if you are Black than if you are White (British). And reading these statistics is an indication of conversations we need to be having – that there is a difference between a Black encounter with the police and a White encounter. And should we be discussing the relationship between White Privilege and unconscious bias?

Are these two things an overspill of colonialism? Are they tied up in race politics and how we think about race?

Whilst these statistics are for Northamptonshire, it wouldn’t be controversial to say that stop and search is a universal narrative for Black people in Europe and the Americas. Whether we’re talking about being stopped by police on the street or being pressed for papers in 1780s Georgia. Just to live out your existence; for many its tiring – same story, different era.

You are between six and thirteen times more likely to be stopped if you are Black than if you are White (British) – but you know… let’s give Northamptonshire police tasers and see what happens. Ahem.

Bibliography

Eddo-Lodge, Reni. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. Print

How literature failed me as a black student

My name is Francine Bitalo, I am 21 years old and a Criminology undergraduate at the University of Northampton. Coming from a black African background I have always had a strong interest in the Criminal Justice System and its treatment towards different groups in society.

My dissertation was based on the impact of police practices such as stop and search on young black men and their families. Whilst statistics present the alarming racial disproportionately which exist in many areas in the criminal justice system, it fails to portray the long-lasting effects it has had on Black families. For example, the daily harassment and differential treatment subjected to young Black men has forced black families to reinvent themselves to conform to institutional racism. Coming from a Black family myself and having male family member, the findings in my dissertation quickly became personal to me, as I could constantly relate them to the structuring of my own family. For example, the fact that it would take my father longer to find a job due to institutional racism, making my mother the breadwinner, or when my mother is preparing my brothers for police harassment and discrimination, but not me and sisters.

While conducting my research I was quick to learn that what literature may describe as a phenomenon, for many of us is a reality. If I am honest the writing stage of my dissertation was difficult for me because it was a passionate topic. I experienced a lot of self-doubt regarding my positionality for example, being a Black woman and facing my own forms of discrimination and now having to talk about the experiences of young Black men. I think my dissertation tutor would agree with me on this as I remember emailing her after I submitted my work expressing how I felt like I didn’t effectively capture the effects and the voices of the young Black men I interviewed, despite that being my main goal. I mean who would blame me, as a student, if I am honest I felt like literature really let me down for instance, when writing my literature review I found that literature neglected the subject of racism solely from the perspectives of young Black men, despite statistics showing them to being the largest group to experience institutional racism. At this point I had to laugh at the criminal justice system and its propositions to improving police relations as well as re offending.

With that being said the information I did come across I couldn’t help but sense the notion of white privilege lingering in the perspective of some scholars. I understand this is a strong claim to make however I say this because not only did literature provide little of the work of Black scholars regarding the topic, yet it was evident that most white scholars did not see the issue with stop and search and its discriminate use. Arguments for this were discussed in my dissertation for example, some argued that the process of racial socialisation in Black households were ineffective to police relations and the functioning of their services, which creates the notion that the Black community should submit to discrimination and harassment in favour of procedures and compliance during police encounter. Some tried to justify the disproportionality in stop and search by claiming that young Black men should be harassed because they tend to be out more especially in certain urban areas or the disproportionate targeting of Black minors is due to parental criminality. I felt there was a lack of accountability from white scholar thus, little understanding in the issue of race which is natural because their experiences do not allow them to understand. Yet this led me to ask questions such as why shouldn’t Black mothers have the right to prepare their sons for police discrimination, does it matter what time and area should a person of colour be around for them to be targeted at?

After completing my dissertation and getting a First Class I felt extremely proud of myself, the fact that I did not shy away from the research topic despite it being limited in literature. As a result, it was satisfying to know that I was able to articulate the experiences of others to a First Class standard. I hope this can encourage others to trust in their abilities and put aside any doubts especially when choosing a research topic. As a student writing a dissertation or even an assignment, I believe we should explore the unexplored, open the unopened and always be willing to discover and learn. Do not be afraid of researching something that is limited or has never been done. Lastly as my dissertation was extremely passionate to me I have decided to turn it into a personal project and continue researching the topic

Documenting inequality: how much evidence is needed to change things?

In our society, there is a focus on documenting inequality and injustice. In the discipline of criminology (as with other social sciences) we question and read and take notes and count and read and take more notes. We then come to an evidence based conclusion; yes, there is definite evidence of disproportionality and inequality within our society. Excellent, we have identified and quantified a social problem. We can talk and write, inside and outside of that social problem, exploring it from all possible angles. We can approach social problems from different viewpoints, different perspectives using a diverse range of theoretical standpoints and research methodologies. But what happens next? I would argue that in many cases, absolutely nothing! Or at least, nothing that changes these ingrained social problems and inequalities.

Even the most cursory examination reveals discrimination, inequality, injustice (often on the grounds of gender, race, disability, sexuality, belief, age, health…the list goes on), often articulated, the subject of heated debate and argument within all strata of society, but remaining resolutely insoluble. It is as if discrimination, inequality and injustice were part and parcel of living in the twenty-first century in a supposedly wealthy nation.  If you don’t agree with my claims, look at some specific examples; poverty, gender inequality in the workplace, disproportionality in police stop and search and the rise of hate crime.

  • Three years before the end of World War 2, Beveridge claimed that through a minor redistribution of wealth (through welfare schemes including child support) poverty ‘could have been abolished in Britain‘ prior to the war (Beveridge, 1942: 8, n. 14)
  • Yet here we are in 2019 talking about children growing up in poverty with claims indicating ‘4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK’. In addition, 1.6 million parcels have been distributed by food banks to individuals and families facing hunger
  • There is legal impetus for companies and organisations to publish data relating to their employees. From these reports, it appears that 8 out of 10 of these organisations pay women less than men. In addition, claims that 37% of female managers find their workplace to be sexist are noted
  • Disproportionality in stop and search has long been identified and quantified, particularly in relation to young black males. As David Lammy’s (2017) Review made clear this is a problem that is not going away, instead there is plenty of evidence to indicate that this inequality is expanding rather than contracting
  • Post-referendum, concerns were raised in many areas about an increase in hate crime. Most attention has focused on issues of race and religion but there are other targets of violence and intolerance

These are just some examples of inequality and injustice. Despite the ever-increasing data, where is the evidence to show that society is learning, is responding to these issues with more than just platitudes? Even when, as a society, we are faced with the horror of Grenfell Tower, exposing all manner of social inequalities and injustices no longer hidden but in plain sight, there is no meaningful response. Instead, there are arguments about who is to blame, who should pay, with the lives of those individuals and families (both living and dead) tossed around as if they were insignificant, in all of these discussions.

As the writer Pearl S. Buck made explicit

‘our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members’ (1954: 337).

If society seriously wants to make a difference the evidence is all around us…stop counting and start doing. Start knocking down the barriers faced by so many and remove inequality and injustice from the world. Only then can we have a society which we all truly want to belong to.

Selected bibliography

Beveridge, William, (1942), Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, (HMSO: London)

Buck, Pearl S. (1954), My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, (London: Methuen)

Lammy, David, (2017), The Lammy Review: An Independent Review into the Treatment of, and Outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System, (London: Ministry of Justice)

%d bloggers like this: