Shine A Light

Stop and search: young Londoners hold police to account

Nobody likes to be stopped, harassed and humiliated by the police. Young people are devising strategies to protect themselves.

Natasha Dhumma
22 June 2015
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Still from Y-Stop, a Fully Focused film directed by Teddy Nigh

Lately we have been visiting youth clubs and schools across London to find out how young people feel about stop and search. From playful 9 year olds, who could act out in alarming detail aggressive police confrontations they had seen on the street, right up to those in their early twenties, frustration, helplessness and fear were palpable. For people who are never searched, it is easy to attribute any objection young people may have to attitude problems and conclude they are unnecessarily aggressive towards the police who are just doing their jobs. After all, if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to hide. Right?

The purpose of the power is to detain a person in order to confirm or allay a suspicion that they are carrying a prohibited item. But, as many young people will tell you, it is rarely about that item. Instead, stop and search is a ritual performed by police to exert their authority over the streets.

Young people feel bullied, targeted for who they know or where they live, with any attempt to exercise their rights being misinterpreted as cockiness. Day in, day out this amounts to harassment, being “known to police” when often this is purely as a result of being excessively stopped and searched anyway. A game of chicken-and-egg played out across the country’s most deprived areas. It is no wonder that over years this might result in frustration and anger that can find a release through violence, aggression and rioting.

Perhaps the most eye-opening stories we heard were from the under 11s we consulted, who you would be forgiven for thinking had little experience of stop and search. They told us how scared they were of the police, how their hearts start beating fast when they see an officer approach them. They struggle to breathe, unsure what might happen to them. Of those who had not yet started having these experiences, we asked them how they might react to being searched. We had responses as chilling as calling Childline about it or reporting it to their teachers as a sexual assault. In this context, the idea that the police should be perceived as offering protection to young people is absurd.

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From these conversations we created Y-Stop, a partnership project involving 80 young people from seven youth groups across London, reflecting communities who so often find themselves at the sharp end of policing. We spent six months in workshops and consultation activities working out the biggest problems they face and possible solutions. What were their perceptions of stop and search? What were their experiences? What might an improved interaction look like to them? What sort of advice and support could achieve that? And how they would be most likely to engage with it? 

We brought these young people together with lawyers, activists, designers, charities, researchers and youth workers to help them flesh out the advice they wanted to include and collaborate on the design. A group of them even devised a peer training session and visited each youth club to trial it out.

We agreed we would step away from the traditional-know-your-rights approach which just seemed to antagonise officers and instead took a more practical approach that enables young people to communicate more effectively with the police, bring them closer to an equal footing and ultimately steer the encounter to a quicker end. You could call it a harm reduction approach, one which aims to shift the power imbalance in a safe and non-confrontational way.

895,975 searches were conducted in England and Wales last year, according to the Home Office. We think a quarter of these are on minors aged 17 years and under. Bearing in mind a black person is five times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts, the statistics soon paint a clear picture about which groups are being targeted by this power. When there is no credible evidence for these groups committing more of the crimes that stop and search targets, the disproportionality remains unjustified and must therefore be challenged.

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This requires fairer and stronger policies, greater accountability of individual police officers and monitoring mechanisms to keep these powers in check, but it also relies – perhaps unfairly — on confident and educated young people who can spot any wrongdoing and be willing to call it out. Police behaviour has the best chance of being improved when both come together. 

We stripped the Y-Stop advice down into six key steps to handling a stop and search which spell out the acronym S.E.A.R.C.H. This easy-to-remember formula is emblazoned on our travel wallet and fold-out search card that explains each step in detail. It structures our training sessions where participants learn to apply them through role play.

Soon we’ll be bringing out an app that is a tool for implementing a couple of these steps: Record and Hold to account. But perhaps the best place to see the formula in action is our new two part film made by Fully Focused. It follows three young characters on their way to important events, a school exam, a shift at a new job and an interview, and being stopped and held up by police. It highlights how different responses produce different outcomes and how these six steps can help you take an active role in changing your experience. It helps you identify good and bad police practice and for those who have never been searched, it shows the impact it can have on a person.

In a situation void of trust and fed up of waiting for the police to take responsibility to improve things through training, greater accountability and youth engagement that never seems to happen, young people we work with have instead come up with a new tactic. They are equipping themselves with the skills and knowledge to ensure they are protected during stop and search, protected from the police. This film is a powerful tool for young people to manage stop and search and ensure the streets are for everybody.

Watch part one here, and part two here. To organise a screening, book a stop and search training session or order our materials email us. Y-Stop is run by Release in partnership with StopWatch and Fully Focused

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