Go Wisely is the mnemonic used by the police to explain their stop and search procedure. It stands for: Grounds (for the search), Object (what you are looking for), Warrant (if in plain clothes), Identification (identify yourself), Station, Entitlement (allowed copy of forms) Lawfully, Year (to get copy of search record).
Perhaps the UK police might be better off thinking of Go Wisely as a motto rather than just a mnemonic. Police use of stop and search continues to be an area of severe tension with the young people that Just for Kids Law works with.
It is not just young people who cite police abuse of powers as one reason the riots happened in the UK last summer. The use of stop and search is highlighted as a causal factor by both the interim report of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel and the Reading the Riots study conducted by the London School of Economics and The Guardian.
It is not surprising that disproportionate use of stop and search should cause such tension. Back in 1999, The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry identified racial disproportionality in stop and search as an area of particular concern. What is surprising is that so little appears to have changed. In 2009/10, black people were seven times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched. For stop-and-searches under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order 1994, which gives police the power to stop and search if they believe that serious violence will occur or that weapons are being carried, black people were almost 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
These experiences with the police shape the everyday lives of the young black people that we work with at Just for Kids Law. The following statements are typical of the way in which they view the police:
‘I don’t think the police respect young people; they use power over us, they seem angry, they seem like they want to get back at young people.’
‘Of course I don’t respect the police, they are not civilised people; they have been granted too many powers and they abuse those powers. There are some good police but most of them are bad. They think they are untouchable, they think they are God.’
Such perceptions are largely fashioned by their experiences of stop and search but that is only part of a wider picture of the kind of treatment they have come to expect from the police. In 2005, one of Just for Kids Law’s young clients recorded a police officer threatening him, including the taunt that he would “smash your Arab face in”. The officer in question, PC Yates, resigned from the police force after admitting that it was him on the recording and the behaviour was condemned from the very top of the Metropolitan Police. Ian Blair, Commissioner at the time, said: “… that behaviour is totally contrary to the values of the Metropolitan Police and I do not need this man in the organisation.”
Yates was a member of the Met’s Territorial Support Group (TSG). In 2007, officers from this Group were charged with assault against three young people in 2007. While the officers were acquitted of the assault, the jury in that case were not told that one of them, PC Mark Jones, had personally been the subject of more than 30 complaints (the majority complaints of assaulting black or Asian men) nor that the Metropolitan Police had admitted liability and paid £60,000 compensation for damages for an assault by officers, including PC Jones, during the arrest of a Muslim man named Babar Ahmad.
In September 2009, a 16-year-old accused of stealing a push-bike was punched in the face by a sergeant from the TSG with such force that several of his teeth were broken. And, just last month, a TSG officer, PC Keith Bartlett, was found guilty of head-butting a 14-year old child who was a passenger in a car that was stopped because the driver was on a mobile phone. After the finding of guilt Scotland Yard issued a statement that these officers were still serving in the police force but had been placed on restricted duties. The victim’s mother said: “I brought my children up to respect the police, to teach them right from wrong, and it's not right he is still in the force.”
The concept of “respect” informed much of the discussion around the riots and their causes. A lot was said about young people’s lack of respect, for the police as well as for society generally. But to talk of young people’s “lack of respect” gives only half the picture. As the rapper Plan B said in his TEDx Observer talk earlier this month:
'I think the reason why we didn’t have respect for authority was that we felt we were ignored by society. And so we wouldn’t listen to anyone apart from our favourite rappers. We would let this music raise us and, though most of will never meet those artists in our lives, their words are what guided us.'
District Judge David Simpson, a specialist youth judge who was hearing the trial against our client for insulting PC Yates (before Yates knew he had been recorded verbally abusing him) said in acquitting him: “There’s a lot of talk about respect and the lack of it. Respect is not something you get by putting on a uniform. I believe respect should be earned.”
And that is the point: for young people to trust and respect the police that trust and respect must be earned. The Home Secretary Theresa May has acknowledged that the perception of police abuse of stop-and-search powers needs to be addressed. And Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe has also acknowledged that police officers are “not always able to manage” to act professionally when undertaking stop and search. The Met also recognises on its website that it needs help from those whom they police in addressing the problem.
All these intentions are a good start. However, if the police wish to earn respect they will have to go further. In particular, young people must be able to voice their experiences and opinions and the police must take on board the value of these experiences and opinions.
And that brings us back to the riots. While the actions of the people on the streets during those nights may not be excusable, the aftermath has provided us with an opportunity to hear of the disenchantment, the disenfranchisement and the dissatisfaction and anger at policing practices such as stop and search. The studies of the causes of the riots last summer identified that “widespread anger and frustration at the way police engage with communities was a significant cause of the summer riots in every major city where disorder took place…”
The Riots Communities and Victims Panel found not only concern about the misuse of stop and search but also lack of confidence in the complaints system, the mechanism intended to provide accountability for such misuse. That is also reflected in an Ipsos Mori survey commissioned by the panel. The survey questioned 1,200 people and found that more than half believed that nothing would happen if they made a complaint against the police.
If we choose not to listen to the people who were on the streets last summer and choose not to act on what we hear about the riots, we may find that new disturbances may not be too far away. As Plan B put it:
'It’s this vicious circle that goes round. By calling these kids these words you push them out of your society and they don’t feel part of it. You beat them into apathy and in the end they just say: "Cool, I don't care. I don't want to be part of your society".'
Just for Kids Law is trying to respond to the voice of young people in society. To do this it takes advice from a team of Youth Ambassadors. One current project, in collaboration with other organisations and the police themselves, is to devise a system whereby the accountability of the police can be monitored via an App collating information being uploaded onto the internet. We believe that while officers at the top may have good intentions, a bottom-up approach is the way forward.
Social media and the internet have changed how people communicate and share information. The same technology that can be used to organise social unrest on a national level, can also be used to mobilise citizens to engage with these issues in a constructive way. To allow young people to focus their energy in a positive way and empower them to be catalysts for change within their communities might prevent the very anger and disenchantment that could lead to future social unrest.
The stop and search project can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.