Sep 17, 2013

SSLP appear before the London Assembly to give evidence

SSLP lawyers appearing before the London Assembly's Stop and Search Working Group last week have called for stop-and-search to be informed by intelligence rather than prejudice to help tackle the damage being done by the current use of the controversial tactic.

SSLP's Cecilia Goodwin, a criminal defence lawyer by day, told the committee at City Hall that stop-and-search could be a legitimate crime-fighting tool if used properly, but was being used without 'reasonable suspicion' – that legally justifies its use – leading to its disproportionate use on certain groups.

She said: “Does reasonable suspicion mean being black or Asian, under 25 and male?” She said some people now joke 'I was stopped for driving whilst being black'. SSLP founder Molly Mulready-Jones, a criminal defence solicitor at the Court of Appeal, told the committee: “Young black men think it's a normal part of life. They can't all be under reasonable suspicion – that would be ridiculous.”

Ms Mulready-Jones said its misuse is counter-productive and making the lives of both the police and the communities they're supposed to serve more difficult. She said: “I met a six-year-old who said 'we hate the police and the police hate us'. That's not a police force they can turn to if they are the victim of crime. [And] they're definitely not going to be a witness or come forward following a plea for information because they see the police as the enemy.”

Unlawful stops lead to arrest

A recent report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary stated that around 27 per cent of all stop-and-searches were carried out without reasonable suspicion and were thus unlawful.

Worse still some unlawful stops lead to arrest and even prosecution when a victim reacts to how they are being treated and are arrested for a public order offence, Ms Goodwin said.

Around 40 per cent of all arrests following a stop-and-search are unrelated to the reason given for the stop, according the Metropolitan Police's own figures.

However, SSLP and the other witnesses appearing before the Committee – from Stopwatch and the Newham Monitoring Project – acknowledged there was no magic solution to ensure officers only carry out stop-and-search when legally justified, but suggested a mix of better training, monitoring and discipline would help despite the problems they all include.

More acountability needed

The Committee was told the police are constantly being trained and retrained but the problems remain, independent monitoring groups are losing funding while official ones lack teeth and transparency and using the complaints system is futile.

Ms Goodwin said: “It comes down to accountability. How many people know they can complain and when they do what happens?” They're rarely upheld, Ms Mulready-Jones said. “Everybody knows somebody who has had a dodgy stop-and-search and a bit of harassment from the police, but no-one knows anybody who has had a successful complaint against the police.”

Estelle de Boulay, director at NMP, said people don't have faith in the system saying out of the thousands of people NMP has supported no more than ten have made a complaint. “It's never been simplified for young people. If people want to make a complaint they can end up going through a long-winded procedure complaining, appealing if it's unsuccessful and then it being reinvestigated. None of this is considered an access issue for young people,” she said.

She said young people need to be consulted on what needs to change to make them more likely to complain.

Ms Mulready-Jones said people need to be made aware of their right to complain, how to do it, where to get support and what evidence to gather. “The fact you are allowed to film the police as long as you don't obstruct them – that's not widely known. That can really help with a complaint,” she said.

Flattering stats

A recent drive by the Metropolitan Police to cut the number of stop-and-searches saw a 20 per cent drop in the number of drug-related searches over the past year, however, the number of stop-and-searches carried out is believed to be much higher than currently reported with officers regularly failing to hand-out records of the stop.

Not only does this flatter the figures and imply stop-and-search is more successful than it really it is, but it also makes it more difficult for people to complain.

Ms Goodwin said: “How do you prove you are being stopped three or four times a day? You can't because there is nothing to prove it's happening.”

SSLP and NMP also expressed concern to the committee over the use of body cameras which are currently being trialled in parts of the country. Privacy and data protection being the main concerns.

The committee, which has no power, but scrutinises and advises the Metropolitan Police and the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime, will publish a report based on their findings in due course.

The government is due to publish a response to its public consultation on stop-and-search later this year.

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