(Press release from brap. You can visit the brap website here but do please note that the opinions expressed by brap are solely those of the organisation and do not necessarily reflect my own. Suffice to say, the opposite also applies.)
Under existing laws, police officers must have “reasonable suspicion” an offence has been committed and must tell a suspect what they are looking for before a stop and search can take place. They are also required to make a detailed record of the incident.
However, amid growing concern about gang-related violence, it has been suggested that Gordon Brown is likely to recommend reducing ‘red tape’ on how stop and searches are conducted and recorded by police.
This has been a contentious issue in British policing for some time. Since the early 1980s, many have questioned the high proportion of BME people being stopped and searched by police. Recent figures show that black people were four times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. It is to prevent this type of racial profiling that rules around ‘reasonable suspicion’ were first introduced. Without the requirement to demonstrate this, past experience would suggest that racial profiling is likely to increase. This could result in the police running a grave risk of further alienating and even criminalising ethnic minority communities. brap asks whether it is necessary to infringe people’s rights in this way?
David Cameron has suggested that reviewing the rules on reasonable suspicion will help protect young black and Asian people (presumably because it is these groups that are more likely to be a victim of and commit gang violence). The argument that people’s rights should sometimes be infringed in the interests of society as whole is an old one. This argument has been used in recent years to justify stop and searches – without reasonable suspicion – to prevent terrorism and protect national security.Depriving somebody of their rights however should be a very last resort.
The decision to infringe a person’s rights needs to be based on a fair balance between the demands of society as a whole and the protection of the individual. The Government will need to find an approach to improving the efficiency of stop and search, whilst maintaining an appropriate regard for the dignity and equality of all those that are stopped.
Reasonable suspicion was introduced to address the concerns of people involved in riots like Brixton and Handsworth. We must not forget that history can teach us a valuable lesson and so cannot ignore the risks that go hand in hand with racial profiling of suspects.