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The numbers in black and white: racism in the policing of drugs

Each year the UK police are disproportionately stopping and searching large numbers of Black and Asian people for drug possession, amounting to mass police interference in everyday life. Is an answer decriminalising drug possession?

‘Stop and search has a negative impact. It shows that the police are not to be respected and that the community is not in their interests, and that there are deep problems at the very heart of our police force.’

This is the view of a London mother whose child has been subjected to stop and search on a number occasions. The damage stop and search does to our young people and communities is one of the issues highlighted by Release, and detailed in a recent report titled The Numbers in Black and White. Launched with the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in August 2013, the report shows how the policing and prosecutions of drug possession offences in England and Wales is unduly focused on black and minority communities.

The policing of drugs has led to a significant increase in levels of stop and search in England and Wales. In 2010/11 just over 1.2 million ‘reasonable suspicion’ stop and searches were carried out by the police, of this number 550,000 were for drugs. This means, on average, someone in England and Wales is stopped and searched by the police for drugs every 58 seconds. Those from black and Asian communities are more likely to be subject to such searches despite the fact that both groups use drugs at a lower rate than those from a white background.

The research, which used Home Office and Ministry of Justice Statistics, demonstrates that Asian people are twice as likely to be stopped and searched for drugs and black people are searched at a rate of six times that of white people. When compared with other ‘reasonable suspicion’ grounds for stop and search it is clear that the policing of drugs is driving the racial disparity in the criminal justice system. When looking at all stop and searches minus drugs the rates of disproportionality fall for both black and Asian people. Added to this is the fact that the national arrest rate for drugs is lower than the rate for all other offences detected through stop and search.

Nationally, the arrest rate following a stop and search for drugs is 7.1 per cent. For all offences including drugs it is 9.2 per cent and when drugs are removed from the rates for all other offences it is 11.2 per cent. Even when ‘hit rates’ are included, this is where officers find cannabis and issue either warning or an on-the-spot fine, the ‘success’ rate rises to around 20 per cent meaning that four out of five people are being stopped and searched needlessly.

Police responses to those caught in possession of drugs were also looked at in the report. Convictions for the possession of cocaine provided the most striking figures, and the data analysed from the Metropolitan Police Service, demonstrated a clear racial bias. The research showed that 44 per cent of white people caught in possession of cocaine were charged for the offence, the remaining 56 per cent were cautioned, however 78 per cent of black people caught in possession of the drug were charged and only 22 per cent cautioned.

At the time of the report launch some commentators stated that the higher rate of charge for black people was as a result of previous convictions. To some degree this is true, 45 per cent of black people who were charged for possession of cocaine had a previous conviction compared with 25 per cent of white people. Although it must be recognised that as black people are at greater risk of being stopped and searched, where they are in possession of drugs they are more likely to be detected for this offence. However, when analysing the data we also compared the police response to those who were caught in possession of cocaine and who were recorded as having no previous conviction and found that 60 per cent of black people were charged for the offence compared to just 25 per cent of white offenders. This clearly demonstrates that when it comes to police decision making black people are being treated differently to the white population. This raises questions as to what is driving this inequitable treatment both in relation to stop and search and to how the police dispose of cases of people caught in possession of drugs for personal use.

Target culture and everyday policing

In order to address the issue of racial imbalances in policing it is important to recognise the damage that is caused by the policing of low level drug offences. The sheer number of people caught up in the policing of drugs is unparalleled when looking at other ‘suspected’ offending behaviour. Searches for firearms make up 1 per cent and offensive weapons 10 per cent of all of the 1.2 million ‘reasonable suspicion’ stop and searches. The debate around stop and search has historically focused on the need to disrupt serious crime, but our research shows that such police interventions are overly focused on low-level street drug possession. This is supported by the recent report produced by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) which stated that:

“As a result of the budget reductions required by the Government‘s 2010 spending review, forces are trying to do more with fewer resources. It was therefore extremely surprising that the use of stop and search powers was not better aimed at preventing or detecting those crimes the force considered to be the most important. Most forces focused on preventing and detecting burglary, robbery and other property crimes and, in large city areas, violent crime. Whilst these priorities suggest that stop and search powers would be targeted at property crime and weapons, almost half of searches nationally were for drugs, and of those searches, most were for low-level street possession.”

This brings us back to the question of what is the motivation for large scale drugs searches. Our research highlights the structural problems that exist in relation to measuring effectiveness and performance of individual officers. Whilst there are no national performance indicators, the current UK Government scrapped these in 2010, it appears that the target culture is embedded in police behaviour. A view supported by various senior police officers:

"Despite assurances from the current Government about the removal of central targets there is still a really strong performance management culture in the service, which has created a generation of people who are great at chasing targets but do not always recognise that doing the right thing is the best thing for the public."

 As well as the simple activity of stop and search, police officers appear to demonstrate their own effectiveness to senior police officers through the use of sanctioned detections. A sanctioned detection is the tick in the box when a crime is detected and resolved.  Arguably, for police officers the easiest sanctioned detection that can be obtained is low-level drug possession offences, in particular possession of cannabis. Finding cannabis is easy, most police officers will know where people, especially young people, are smoking it and so there is an incentive to police this activity even though it is not a priority for the community. The fact that nearly one in seven young people have used cannabis in the last year means that the police are incentivised to go out and search for drugs as they know they are more likely to detect this ‘crime’, unlike knife or property crime which clearly is not a prevalent activity in society, unlike drug consumption.

The argument for incentivised policing is supported by the most recent ‘Crime Survey for England and Wales’ (‘CSEW’). The report identified that the significant increase in the number of recorded drug offences was linked to the previous government’s Public Service Agreement targets (2004/05 and 2008/09). This led to a target driven approach whereby policing priorities were based on increasing the number of recorded offences brought to justice. The Office for National Statistics, who produced the CSEW, stated that this approach “illustrates how proactive policing can increase crimes against society as the number of drug offences recorded by the police is heavily dependent on police activities and priorities”. The report also goes on to say that the increases in police recorded drug offences were not a reflection of real increases in drug use.

Maintaining a focus on police racism

Whilst the target driven culture of the police may explain the scale of stop and search in relation to drugs it does not explain the racial disparity. The research carried out by Release and LSE did not attempt to analyse the motivation for the disproportionate policing of black and Asian communities for drug offences, rather it was our aim to provide evidence of the fact. It is important though that this discussion happens, whether it is as continued analysis of institutional racism as identified in the MacPherson Inquiry, or the behaviour of individual officers on the street. It is the continued over-representation of black and Asian people in the criminal justice system that demonstrates the broken nature of policing in this country.

Stop and search powers have been repeatedly cited as a flashpoint in some of the greatest disturbances witnessed in modern day Britain. Both the Brixton Riots of the 1980s and the more recent riots of August 2011 were linked to the discriminatory use of stop and search. For young people who have experienced stop and search, and especially where they have had repeated encounters, their view of the police can be damaged. Often they will perceive the police as lacking legitimacy and that the role of the police is to ‘control’ their communities. This can in practice result in young people not cooperating as witnesses to a crime, or in taking a matter into their own hands, as they do not view the police as a service that is there to protect them. This response is not limited to young people but also the communities in which they live, where the local population will have suffered for decades as a result of being over-policed. It is our position that the damage caused by stop and search impacts on the ability of police to operate effectively in certain communities and can actually undermine their effectiveness in policing more serious crime. This is particularly true for many from black and ethnic minority communities.

The power to interfere

The fact that the police interfere with a person’s free movement, and that drug policing is a primary factor in this experience, affects the ability of the police to perform their role effectively and potentially creates a number of other unintended consequences. The issue of police legitimacy and procedural fairness has received greater attention in the UK over the last decade. Repeatedly academics both in the UK and the US have stated that the public care more about police treatment which is ‘linked to trust, legitimacy, cooperation and compliance with the law’ than they do about ‘police effectiveness’. 

The Home Secretary’s decision to review the police use of stop and search is welcomed but if it is to be meaningful it has to address the issue of drugs policing within the context of this power. Failure to do so will result in the continued mass interference of this country’s citizens and will do nothing to address the injustice perpetrated by the state against marginalised and racialised communities. Ultimately, the only effective solution is to take drug possession out of policing and decriminalise the offence – as at present it is making too many people subject to police interference.

About the author

Niamh Eastwood is the Executive Director of Release. She has co-authored Release's two previous policy papers, “The Numbers in Black And White: Ethnic Disparities in the Policing and Prosecution of Drug Offences in England and Wales” and the first edition of “A Quiet Revolution”. Follow her on Twitter: @niamhrelease


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