It’s amazing what a simple press release can do to get a buried subject back on the agenda. This time it was in the form of an open letter from the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, to her counterpart, Theresa May, calling on her to reform stop and search as she had promised.
Later that day the Guardian was able to run a story on the Stop and Search Legal Project‘s Know Your Rights workshops that had been waiting for a news item to peg to. It should have been published last year following the publication of the government’s response to the consultation on stop and search, but the government’s response never came.
- You can see Glenn McMahon talking to Azeem, one of the participants from a SSLP workshop, in the video. Azeem is from an estate in Hackney.
A number of requests from the media to attend future workshops have followed as has a request for me to write this article, again, focusing on our workshops. But being well versed in the issues surrounding stop and search, I know it’s not our workshops we should be focusing on.
They are merely a consequence of the lack of political will to deal with the uncomfortable issues at hand: unprofessional officers and the joke of a system to hold them to account.
On this occasion the lack of political will, which Cooper sought to address, was caused by a fear of UKIP being seen as tougher on crime in the run-up to the European elections in May, according to recent reports. So despite the riots, the endless reports and the political assurances it appears nothing – again – is to be done.
And so we will continue to promote and run our workshops in an attempt to empower young people – as best we can – to manage a humiliating and confrontational experience – as best they can.
Shockingly, a lot of them see stop and search as a fact of life they must suffer with no chance of redress. Others see it as a game of cat-and-mouse they play-out on the streets with the police. Banter, abuse and arrest are all within the rules.
But they’re not.
The police procedures on stop and search are clear and they don’t include profiling, torment or abuse.
So we teach young people their rights and the procedures officers should follow. Many are shocked they don’t have to give their name or address unless they’re arrested. Some say they’ve been threatened with arrest if they don’t. Hearing it from a senior officer assures them.
But maybe more importantly we encourage them to remain calm and polite, or civil at worst, as there will only be one winner if a battle of egos breaks out.
Unsurprisingly some recount the difficulty in doing so if they are regularly or unjustly stopped or even abused or manhandled in front of their friends.
So we find ourselves asking the teenagers to act like adults and ignore the adults acting like kids.
Our scripted role play of a stop and search scenario helps get the message across – after coaxing the self-conscious youths out of their shells.
Four friends are returning home from a camping trip when they are stopped by a couple of officers who claim they are suspected of committing a burglary. “What all of us?” the friends ask, “with all this camping gear?”
Three of them resentfully comply highlighting where the officers break from procedure, while one reacts and is arrested. After he’s released he professes his regret. “Yeah, better to stay calm,” one of his friends says, “but tomorrow I’m gonna make a formal complaint. If enough of us complain they’ll have to do something eventually.”
Apart from lightening up procedures, the play provokes discussion around people’s experiences and provides an opportunity to reflect on how best to conduct themselves during a stop.
Ultimately we want them to know what to expect and be able to walk away with minimal fuss and their dignity intact.
However, it is interesting that some young people blame those who are targeted on the way they dress, carry themselves or choose to hang out. And a few admit that as they get older and move on from ‘the street’ the problem disappears.
But telling youths to change their wardrobe, posture or choice of venue is not going to wash. And of course, wearing a hoody, walking with a limp or ‘hanging on the ends’ are neither illegal nor imply criminal activity.
So on the back of a range of views and experiences we finish the workshop with a Judge Judy type skit where both sides of the argument are put.
Dressed in gowns and wigs the young judges preside over their peers who state their positions for and against. It never ceases to impress how seriously they press and consider the cases before the verdict is delivered. But maybe that’s just a further example of the everyday ignorant and prejudicial views of ‘young people’.
As it turns out, the judges usually rule in favour of stop and search, but with conditions: they must be justified (reasonable and genuine suspicion they are in possession of something they shouldn’t) and profiling, racial or other, must stop. Exactly what Cooper’s letter to the government demands and with which Theresa May apparently concurs.
But the workshop is over, so we’ll let others explain why politicians do nothing when everyone agrees on what needs to be done.
Glenn is a freelance journalist and former reporter at the Kilburn Times