Clapton in east London is what the home office likes to call a “crime hotspot”, brimming with what police jargon calls “targeted individuals” or “prominent nominals”. An ethnically mixed area of the capital, it picked up a bad reputation with the media, who called the neighbourhood the “murder mile”. Both police and locals say this description is now out of date.
Nonetheless “stop and search” has become part of everyday life for many young people here. Under this law, the police can stop anyone under “reasonable” suspicion that they could commit a crime. Refuse police instructions and you could end up in jail.
The police and politicians claim stop and search is necessary to control crime. But judging from events in Upper Clapton last week, stop and search is doing little or nothing to stop crime – but is successful at angering and alienating young people.
Students at Brooke House sixth form college were confronted by a mass weapons search as they headed for classes on Thursday morning last week. Over 60 police officers set up airport-style scanners and metal detectors at the college gate.
The students were scanned as they entered the building. Several students – mainly young black men – were stopped by plainclothes policemen patrolling nearby.
Out of the sight of college staff police used “restraint” techniques on those who were unwilling to cooperate. One student had four policemen standing around him.
He was held by his wrists by officers, while a third placed his foot over that of the student’s. The fourth policeman conducted the search by pushing his hands into the student’s pockets.
When challenged about the need for such methods on a youngster, a police sergeant said that these were techniques approved by the home office to “stop a suspect from escaping”.
A female student then escorted the visibly shaken young man into college. Around the corner, other students were facing similar searches.
Students at the college were furious at the operation. “All the college is now feeling aggravated,” Sinan, aged 20, told Socialist Worker.
“They’re saying it’s us who are committing the crimes. But it’s not us. So why they stopping us? They look at us, see we are wearing hoodies and think, ‘Oh, they’re in a gang’.”
Okan, aged 17, agreed. “There’s never been a knife incident in the college,” he said. “Even though this neighbourhood has a bad reputation, the students come here to study, not to learn about crime.
“This is just abuse – it’s taking the piss out of people. This morning the police were stopping everyone, even if they were not going to college. People passing by were getting stopped and searched – all for nothing.”
For Okan getting caught up in stop and searches has become a way of life.
He said, “The first time I was searched I was 14. I had no idea why I was being stopped. I was going to my mate’s house with my DVD player. The police stopped me and said I had stolen it.
“They took me home and asked my mum if it was mine. I was totally confused as to why they would do that.”
Gizen, 17, is also a student at the college. She said, “What’s really stupid is that the police sent letters to our parents warning they would be coming to our college at some point – so if you did have a knife or something, you wouldn’t bring it in. So what’s the point? Why wind us all up?”
At the main gate the police confirmed that they had found no drugs, guns or knives during the search. When asked if they thought this was surprising, one officer insisted, “They got on their mobile phones and warned each other.”
For Jason, 16, the police search at Brooke House was just the latest incident with the police. “I was cycling up a street in Hackney last week looking to buy a computer game when I got stopped by community police,” he said. “I was going the wrong way up a one-way street – I know it was wrong.
“When they stopped me I got off my bike to walk, but they started saying they were going to give me a £30 fine. I was angry because I was just looking for a game – I didn’t want trouble.
“l told them I’m not paying no fine. So they called the regular police. They arrived and started talking down to me and pushing me around. Other people were shouting at them, ‘Leave him alone, he’s done nothing.’
“Then my mobile phone rang. As I went to answer it, the police grabbed me by my legs and my arms, and I got elbowed in the face. Now I’ve got a cut and a black eye. Then they took me to the station and charged me with assault.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have answered back. But they talk to you like they want to provoke you. I’ve been stopped so many times, I’m sick of it.”
According to home office figures, there were just under 840,000 stop and searches in 2004-5.
In the first four months of this year, police recorded a 37 percent increase in what they call “suspicious reconnaissance”. This is part of a strategy of “improving the ‘yield’ from stop and search” – the proportion of those stopped who end up being arrested.
According to figures released by the Metropolitan police, if you are aged between ten to 24 you are a third more likely to be stopped and searched in Hackney that in the rest of the capital, and twice as likely than in Lambeth.
The police figures for August 2007 show that 21 percent of all stop and searches of young black men in Hackney ended in arrest, compared to 8 percent for the rest of the capital. Meanwhile 18 percent of Asians and 17 percent of whites were arrested following stop and search, compared to the 4.6 percent average.
Around 64 percent of arrests were under the misuse of drugs act. Only 5 percent of arrests were for possessing an offensive weapon.
The opperation at Brooke House was conducted with the co-operation of the college authorities. One college official said that Brooke House does not have a reputation for violence and confirmed it was “given a clean bill of health”.
A recent Ofsted inspection report praised the college for its academic standards. Yet when we asked the police why they felt they needed such an overwhelming presence, one officer replied, “Because we are conscious of trouble.”
Robert, 17, was finding it hard to hide his bitterness. “The police around here are the worst,” he said. “They’re always trying to provoke you. There’s something seriously wrong with them.
“The other night I was cycling home. It was late and the roads were empty. Then this police van is on my back. They stop, jump out, grab me and say, ‘You’re weaving all over the street.’
“I told them, ‘Why would I be weaving? There’s no cars to weave around. Do you think I was weaving around parked cars?’ They took offence, cuffed me, and threw me in the back of the van. They accused me of stealing the bike. I told them, ‘you are abusing your powers’.
“So they threatened to put me in jail for the night. Eventually they got really pissed off when they found that I didn’t have a criminal record. I told them that they are the criminals – they’re the ones who should be locked up. And I hope they throw away the key.
“They stop you even if you don’t look suspicious. Every day when I go out, I think, ‘If they stop me today, I mustn’t answer back.’ I know I have no rights – I know there’s nothing I can do.
“A lot of times nothing happens, but when it does, I can’t stop myself. ‘Why you harassing me?’ I say to them, ‘Stop abusing your powers.’ They don’t like that.”
At the time of going to press Socialist Worker had not received a statement about the operation from the Metropolitan Police, despite three requests. Some of the names in this article have been changed.
Stop and search
- Stop and search powers originate from the 1824 Vagrancy Act used to stop soldiers from begging.
- The police could stop, search and arrest, anyone on the suspicion that they might commit a crime.
- People could be convicted on the testimony of the arresting officer. Most people stopped are never charged with any offence – rather the law is used as a form of physical and verbal harassment.
- Stop and search laws were suspended following widespread riots in 1981 – but they have been reintroduced as part of anti-terror and public order legislation
- Black people constitute 2.7 percent of the population aged 10-17, but represent 8.5 percent of all those arrested in England and Wales.
- Once they have been charged with an offence, black young offenders are less likely to be given bail than white young offenders.
- Young black people and young people of mixed ethnicity, when sentenced, are likely to receive more punitive sentences than young white people.
Source: House of Commons home affairs committee report. Go to » www.tinyurl.com/2ekd5s
At the time of going to press Socialist Worker had not received a statement about the operation from the Metropolitan Police, despite three requests. We have since been sent the following press release.
Police press release
Police officers from Hackney Borough Police, led by Hackney Downs SNT and supported by special constables and specialist search officers last week undertook a successful knife arch operation outside the BSix College on Kenninghall Road, E5 in Hackney.
During the course of the operation, which took place between 8.30am and 10.00am, approximately 1,400 students of the college passed through the knife arch and had their bags searched by airport-style scanners. No knives or other weapons were seized. The knife arch operation was part of Operation Curb, an ongoing Met-wide initiative tackling violence amongst young people under 20 years of age.
The college invited police to the college, which has never had a problem with knife crime.
Inspector Graham Simpson, Hackney’s North East Safer Neighbourhoods inspector, said, “Knife crime was down in Hackney 15 percent last year, but this success has to be sustained through a targeted, proactive approach. The knife arch operation enabled us to engage with young people, create the feeling of a safe learning environment for students free from fear and intimidation, and reinforced both ours and the college’s zero tolerance policy towards the possession of knives and other weapons.”
Ken Warman, Principal of B6 College, said, “BSix College works closely with Hackney Police to ensure that young people in our care are safe and secure so that they can concentrate on fulfilling their great potential. The success of the knife arch operation shows our commitment to working closely with other agencies in order to achieve our aims.”
Some of the names in this article have been changed.