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In this article, we argue that the perennial and widely-recognised problems with stop and search – its systematic targeting of Black people and other oppressed groups, the high numbers of unlawful stops, and the justified anger and mistrust in the police that it provokes – cannot be adequately understood and addressed except through an abolitionist lens.
By stop and search powers, we mean the powers of police to detain and search individuals without a warrant. Abolitionist politics, as Mariame Kaba et al explain, connect a ‘radical critique of prisons and other forms of state violence with a broader transformative vision’ that involves building accountable institutions that address the causes of harm and violence.
Why stop and search is ineffective
Stop and search is a tactic that is clearly not effective according to the police’s own criteria, i.e. as a ‘crime-fighting tool’. The mainstream, reformist response to this observation begins from the premise that stop and search powers in some form are necessary for the police to do their jobs, and debate focuses on how to make them more effective. The measure of effectiveness standardly invoked is the rate of arrests following searches, while proposals tend to centre around more intelligence-led searches targeting ‘high crime’ areas and further guidelines on how to conduct stops.
An abolitionist perspective illuminates the limitations of this approach. Firstly, we should be wary of adopting uncritically the police’s measures of success for the simple reason that they do not track real harm. A ‘positive outcome’ to a stop and search, according to the standard definition, is one that ‘identifies criminality’, i.e. leads to an arrest and ultimately a conviction. Such punitive outcomes, however, might better be described as indices of further harm than positive interventions.
Criminalising someone for possessing or supplying drugs – which is the purported reason for 59 per cent of stop and searches – not only fails to address the economic deprivation and lack of opportunity that make participation in informal economies a condition of survival for many, but makes it even harder for those subject to criminal sanction subsequently to access education and employment. These harms are inflicted not just on individuals but on their families and communities, and they frequently exacerbate the social problems they claim to address.
Stop and search and criminalisation
Rather than asking whether stop and search powers are being used ‘effectively’ to identify and punish ‘criminals’, we need to interrogate the relationship between policing methods and historical trajectories of criminalisation. Police routinely target protest and dissent with (blanket section 60 stop and search) powers drawn from the contested Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which was brought in to deal with the travellers, squatters, and environmentalists who threated the ascendant neo-liberal order of increasingly privatised property. Local authority powers brand homelessness ‘anti-social behaviour’ and treat rough sleepers accordingly.
Even in the absence of formal stop and search powers, the UK Border Force uses the assumed authority of uniformed officials to operate an informal stop and search regime in which racial profiling is practically unavoidable. The racist impact of drugs policing has been a stable feature since its inception. The criminalisation of substances used by large numbers of people across society guarantees a pretext for the targeting of any population that the state wishes to control. Wherever they choose to look, ‘criminals’ will reliably be found. And looking on the streets, as stop and search by definition does, will systematically pick up those who do not have the privilege of conducting their illicit activity from the comfort of offices and mansions.
Attending to the specificities of stop and search laws, therefore, reveals that, far from being a politically neutral instrument, these powers are integral to the overlapping criminalisations of poverty, migration, protest, and disability and neurodiversity, as well as the perpetuation of racist oppression.
Taking such an analysis seriously encourages a more realistic understanding of the institutional dynamics of policing than is to be found in many liberal reform proposals. In particular, it alerts us to the ways that even well-meaning investments in one area of the carceral system can fuel and legitimise the expansion of others. For instance, when the police successfully present themselves as another public service damaged by austerity and start hiring 20,000 additional officers, this is used by James Buckland to justify the expansion of prison places by more than 13,000.
The most serious mainstream response to the problems of stop and search is a Liberal Democrat private member’s bill that would abolish ‘suspicionless’ s.60 stop and searches. These stops are even more racist in their application than those conducted under s.1 of PACE and such a bill should be supported. However, we suggest that the reasonable suspicion requirement does little to guard against harms of policing pointed to above, especially since searches under s.1 account for 99.8 per cent of stops.
While it remains nigh-on impossible to hold the police to account through official channels, suspicion-based stop and searches will rely primarily on the police’s own assessment of the legality of a search and the reasonableness of suspicion. Guidelines, as Robert Reiner notes, are in practice ‘cynically interpreted as advice on how to complete acceptable records’. There is consequently a danger in taking police reports at face value, especially given the number of high-profile cases in which police accounts of their own activity have been shown to bear little relation to reality.
It might be thought these problems could be overcome through a move toward a stop and search strategy ‘based on real intelligence, geographically focused and performed professionally’, as Sadiq Khan promised in 2016. However, while poverty, migration, and so on, remain criminalised, targeting ‘high crime’ areas will in reality mean targeting the most deprived areas, perpetuating rather than mitigating the inequality and trauma that underlies such social problems as youth violence.
Attention to the history of policing as a tool of social control undermines the simplistic equation of criminality with wrongfulness, and of ‘crime fighting’ with harm reduction, which the call for intelligence-led strategies presupposes.
Programmes of decriminalisation
The only solution to the problems of stop and search, therefore, lies in placing fundamental limits on routinely used search powers backed up by meaningful sanctions for forces and officers that transgress them. It will require substantial programmes of decriminalisation and the building of social infrastructure to deliver safety for the many not the few.
The case of stop and search, finally, brings into focus a broader methodological imperative for the crafting of progressive reform proposals. One of the key sources for understanding the realities of stop and search is the work of monitoring projects like Netpol and 4Front. Until affected groups on the ground are listened to and the knowledge produced through resistance taken seriously by policy makers, the cycle of racialised policing, outrage and superficial reform will continue.