This article contains descriptions of violence and racism
“Break his arm!” one police officer shouted seconds before five officers tackled Habib Ullah, a 39-year-old father of three, to the ground. A friend of Ullah’s who was witnessing the violent scene begged the police to stop choking the man as she saw him turning blue. Ullah, known by friends as Paps, was later pronounced dead in hospital.
The incident referred to above which happened in 2008 is an example of what can go wrong for Asian people in the United Kingdom who are stopped and searched by the police.
Ullah’s family continues campaigning for justice against deaths in police custody till this day. The Lens reached out to the family, which said that it published a number of articles raising concerns about the abuse and disproportionate use of stop and search in the UK. It described the police’s use of these powers as “overzealous”.
More than 10 years on, Asian individuals are still being disproportionately stopped by police when compared to white people. In September 2020, Kashif Baig, 26, was wrestled to the ground during a stop and search after police saw him exiting a cafeteria without buying anything. Baig is of British and Pakistani heritage.
Writing on Twitter after the incident, Baig said that racial profiling needs to stop.
“It’s only a matter of time before the police accidentally kill someone of colour doing the same thing. I was lucky,” said Baig.
“People were screaming for them to get their knees off me,” said Baig. He’s been traumatised by the event and it’s still not easy for him to deal with. He has to pass through that train station every day to get to work.
Asian people more than twice as likely to be stopped
Asian people are more than twice as likely to be stopped and searched by the police in the UK when compared to white people, recently released data reveals.
A police watchdog said that despite this disproportion, no police force is able to explain why this happens. The watchdog said that although stop and search legislation has been in place for over 35 years, police still don’t understand the impact of the use of these powers.
On the 22nd of February, the UK Government released a cache of data that reveals the ethnicity of the people stopped and searched by the police between April 2018 and March 2019.
The data shows that out of the 41 police forces analysed, only four stopped and searched white people at a higher rate than Asian people. Seven forces had similar rates for both ethnicities while the rest (73%) all stopped and searched Asian people at higher rates.
What is stop and search?
The BBC explains that stop and search is the power given to police to search an individual or vehicle if they have “reasonable grounds” to suspect the person is carrying a weapon, stolen property, illegal drugs, or an object that can be used to commit a crime.
The police can’t stop someone based on their race, gender, or previous criminal record.
In its February 2021 report, the police watchdog noted that there are differing views about stop and search. While some see it as a valuable tool to fight crime, others say that it has little effect on crime rates. For Asian, Black, and Minority Ethnic people it can reinforce the perception that there is a culture of discrimination within the police.
The watchdog’s report explains that disproportionately targeting Asian people can lead to drawing them into the criminal justice system. This disrupts their education, family life, and reduces their work opportunities.
The Lens also looked at the rates of stop and searches carried out since 2009. Over the years, a downward trend was seen in the rates. However, for certain ethnic groups such as the Asian and Black community, there was an increase which started at around 2017.
The chart below gives an overview of how the stop and search rates by ethnicity changed over time.
Figures alone don’t give the actual picture – Police Sergeant
The figures alone don’t give the actual picture of the reality on the streets, Sergeant Karl Pierpoint told The Lens.
Pierpont, who is the Crime Management Sergeant and Police Incident Manager for West Mercia Police said that to interpret the data one must understand an area’s demographics, crimes reported, and offender descriptions provided.
“For example, if a robbery is reported with three Asian male suspects, there are not going to be stop and searches of white or Black males linked to it,” explained Pierpont.
Nonetheless, Pierpont says the police force recognises that stop and search is a very intrusive and divisive power.
“We are always keen to improve and learn,” says Pierpoint.
Home Office data shows that Asian people were stopped and searched almost five times more than white people by the West Mercia Police between April 2019 and March 2020.
A look at Merseyside, where white people are searched more than Asian people
One of the four police forces that stopped and searched white people at a rate higher than that for Asian people is the Merseyside force.
The Lens asked the police force why they’re different from the majority of the other areas.
Sergeant Jemma Shaw, from Merseyside Police, told the Lens that as a force they “work extremely hard to ensure stop and search is correctly targeted with reasonable grounds, focusing on areas of higher crime rates, violent crime, and serious and organised crime.”
She added that “the key to our communities having high levels of confidence in our stop and search processes is transparency, accountability, and scrutiny of all that we do.”
Merseyside police said they “work closely with public scrutiny groups, made up of members of the community, to ensure we are using this important legislation in the most effective and legitimate way, while identifying any disproportionality or any causes for concern.”
Having recently redesigned their Scrutiny Panel, Merseyside police now show police “Body Worn Camera footage” and welcome anyone who would like to be involved, even extending an invitation to The Lens to attend their next stop and search scrutiny panel meeting.
However, Merseyside Police are still advocates for the continued use of stop and search as part of policing. They insist that stop and search is fundamental to keeping local communities safe and that its use “continues to yield significant results in tackling serious and organised crime”
Stop and search, according to Sergeant Shaw is a police power that is “absolutely crucial” in police efforts to “tackle serious and organised crime, providing of course, it is based on criminality and used properly.”
Disproportionality goes much wider than stop and search – Mayor of London
The Mayor of London recognises that the disproportionality affecting different groups of people goes much wider than stop and search and is a concern across all of society, said Ola Kunle, a spokesperson for the Mayor of London.
Kunle told The Lens that while Mayor Sadiq Khan is not involved in the operational aspect of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) his policing office is responsible for holding the police force to account on behalf of all Londoners.
Home Office figures show that in the year ending March 2020, the MPS made almost half of all stop and searches in England and Wales. In London, officers stopped and searched 34 people out of every 1,000.
Due to the high frequency with which children from minority communities are stopped, many Asian parents feel the need to prepare their children for encounters with police. Among such families, this is commonly referred to as having “the conversation”. This is a conversation that most white parents never have to have.
“While the youth justice system has made improvements in recent years, these are not shared equally. Our Working Party has found that BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) children are being left behind, languishing under years of systemic racism and poor treatment from various criminal justice agencies,” says Andrea Coomber, director of the UK law reform and human rights organisation JUSTICE.
On the 25th of February, the working party of JUSTICE recommended that police powers to stop and search people in a specified area should be immediately suspended. It also recommended that police should turn on their body cameras before every stop and search so that improper conduct is prevented or caught.
Does stop and search work?
Despite the controversy surrounding stop and search, there are instances in which police successfully manage to identify a threat and control the situation with no casualties.
In June 2020 a video was posted to Facebook showing police finding a large knife on a young teen in London’s streets during a stop and search. Bystanders shouted at police, telling them to wear masks as they pulled the knife and drugs off the teen. With London knife crime on the rise, had this knife not been confiscated it could have been involved in the next tragedy.
The Lens geolocated the video to the entrance of Walthamstow Central Station in the UK. This was done by finding identifiable objects from the footage through Google Maps.
The Metropolitan Police considers stop and search to be a very important power for protecting the public and keeping streets safe. It cites data public opinion that shows that 83% of people agree with stop and search and that 78% are confident in the police’s fair use of it.
“We feel this means we have a strong public mandate for continued use of stop and search in London,” says the Metropolitan Police.
Nevertheless, data from the UK’s Home Office for 2019 shows that out of the 383,629 combined stops and searches, 279,601 (73%) resulted in no further action.
How can you help?
It’s important that people know and understand their rights during a stop and search. To inform yourself about your rights, you can view the presentation below:
This article was written by Christoph Schwaiger and James Hodgson.