Pan-African human rights organisation Ligali has called for reform of stop and search powers, arguing that so-called Section 60 (S60) orders, in the absence of firm data around their effectiveness, amount to the enabling of “a racist form of martial law”.
Under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, officers are able to stop and search anyone within a set geographical boundary without the ‘reasonable suspicion’ necessary under regular stop and search powers.
The legislation, originally introduced in 1994 to target football hooliganism, has come under heavy scrutiny in recent years because of the increasing racial disparities in its use, as well as the rise in S60s covering entire boroughs.
Black people in particular are more likely to be stopped and searched under S60 powers.
In a recent interview, borough commander Marcus Barnett stressed that S60 powers are not a “free-for-all”, adding that the powers are “based on intelligence and activities that have taken place linked to serious violence, so we either anticipate through intelligence that there will be violence and weapons used, or violence has been used and there have been weapons, and we need to find perpetrators and weapons”.
Ligali community educator Toyin Agbetu said: “Looking at it as a Hackney resident, a father and an African man with two sons, I see S60 and stop and search as one issue, which ensures that my confidence in the police goes down when they state that they are using intelligence-led policing.
“Clearly if you are using a power which is a reimagining of the sus laws of the 80s, then that is not something that tells me that you have learned the lessons of the ills of racial profiling.
“Even though it might be couched in new language, the reality is that it is a power that was created to control football hooliganism, and it has been misapplied in areas which have a large concentration of people of African heritage.
“It is used in a way that enables officers that lack integrity, that fall back on racial tropes, to harass innocent members of our community, and that includes myself, my sons, their friends, my nephews and even my nieces.
“I know that it is used after there has been a violent incident. What that says as a resident and as a father is, ‘Right, someone has been stabbed, so for the next 24 hours we are going to harass every single person of that same ethnic background in the hope that we might strike lucky and find someone who is carrying an offensive weapon.'”
The Metropolitan police were unable to say how many S60s had been put in place over the past three years due to “conflicting data”, referring the Citizen to information covering all forms of stop and search.
Agbetu, who has sat on a number of independent police advisory groups in the past, is now calling for an “effective, targeted [power]… with a level of precision and in-built checks to ensure it is not just another byword for racial profiling”.
He added: “Unless there is a decision to sit down and draft powers in consultation not with establishment figures from our community, people with knighthoods and who are already in bed with the status quo, but people who feel it, who have uncles and aunties, who have people harassed by these powers.
“What I’d like is proper scrutiny. If the power has been issued, and then we have the ability to see how effective or ineffective it was, and the grounds for it being issued, and what the results were, then we are in a position to start reforming and improving.
“If we are to say that even if it is ineffective, it’s a go-to tactic that we have no alternative for, then in reality what the police are doing is enabling a racist form of martial law. That for me is very problematic.”
Stops and searches of all kinds by police in Hackney have tripled in comparison to the same point two years ago, according to Metropolitan Police figures.
Five hundred were performed in the borough in May 2018, whereas May of this year saw just under 1,500, with a drugs search the most common reason given by officers.
When broken down by ethnic appearance, of the 11,031 searches performed in Hackney between June 2019 and May 2020, 55 per cent were of Black people, 28 per cent of white people, 13 per cent of Asian people, and three per cent recorded as ‘other’.
The rates of Black and Asian people being searched in Hackney has seen a far steeper rise between March and May of this year than those of white and other ethnicites.
According to Home Office data, Black people are 40 times more likely to be stopped than white people in England and Wales under S60 powers, with Agbetu pointing to data showing that people from minority ethnic communities are also 50 per cent more likely to be fined under coronavirus legislation.
In an interview with the Citizen last week, borough commander Barnett rejected the idea that S60s are seen within the force as “stop everyone and see what we get”, stressing that they will relate to a particular incident or the risk of one and enable his officers “to get in there as police to prevent it, to prevent harm, to prevent disorder and criminality, and to prevent people from being injured”.
He added: “Not only is it very heavily legislated for, there are very strict rules around it. There are timings around how long it can last for, when they need to be extended, and the levels of authority.
“An inspector can authorise an S60 for 15 hours, and if it needs to be extended beyond that, it is a superintendent or above for nine hours, and at the time of extension it is given oversight by a chief officer, commander or above.
“These things are not done lightly. You have to justify why you are doing it, the geographical location you are going to be doing it in, and what you are seeking to achieve.
“It is something that I absolutely encourage, but as with stop and search, I encourage that too as a policing tactic – but it has to be proportionate, legal, and we have to explain why we’re doing it. When we’re doing it, we must do it properly, ethically and lawfully.
“The bottom line is that we’re doing it because we’re trying to save people’s lives, to protect people and to prevent crime. I absolutely welcome scrutiny, but that is why we do it.”
Between December 2018 and December 2019 in Hackney, there were 201 knife-related incidents that resulted in an injury and 757 knife crimes in total, according to the Met.
Five murders took place in the borough last year.
Barnett added that when S60s are put in place, local authorities as well as independent advisory groups and safer neighbourhood boards are notified for “accountability and scrutiny”, and said that in his opinion the Met needed to be better at explaining the operational reasons for their actions.
When quizzed on the rise of borough-wide S60s put in place in Hackney, the commander gave as an example his force tracking two rival gangs travelling across the borough, adding that much of the time an order would be postcode-led or aimed at a particular area.
Barnett was also asked whether unconscious bias training was in place for officers in order to mitigate the racial disparities seen in the use of S60s, but stated that he “did not think” his officers received this specific training.
He said: “I don’t think there is unconscious bias training, but there has been diversity training in the past. I would be wrong to sit here and say that racial bias does not play a part somewhere by somebody at some time in the Met.
“I’ve said repeatedly, we are people looking after people. Sometimes we get things wrong and misjudge something, and I can’t account for everybody’s actions every minute of the day, but by and large I think my staff and this organisation treat people with a huge amount of dignity and respect in very difficult circumstances.”
Approximately 17,000 officers in the Met Police have received training in unconscious bias, as at last year, out of 32,401 officers, 1,247 PCSOs and 1,880 special officers, according to City Hall figures.
Barnett’s office later confirmed that all new recruits do in fact have mandatory training that includes diversity, unconscious bias, cultural community and race relations’ training.
According to evidence presented to Parliament last year – 20 years after the publication of the Macpherson report following the death of Stephen Lawrence – almost a fifth of officers and police staff tested across a number of police forces since 2009 have an ethnicity bias strong enough to impact their behaviour.
However, Agbetu compares unconscious bias training to “asking someone who loves meat to go to a vegan course”, arguing instead for root-and-branch reform with a revived internal investigative body in the police and an “ethically on point” recruitment regime which would advertise the police as a hostile environment for those with racist beliefs.
The council and police are now looking at setting up a working group to “build trust and confidence in the police and the state”, with a particular focus on Black and minority ethnic communities with “historical issues of distrust”, as well as migrant communities where the state is distrusted in their homeland.
According to figures presented to the council, the total crime rate in Hackney rose by 26 per cent between 2014/15 and 2018/19 with 6681 more victims of crime, though this is still 18 per cent lower than the crime rate in 2002/03.
A council report on the issue frames young people’s voices highlighting a “lack of respect from professionals (particularly police and teachers),” with stop and search “an issue of concern,” adding: “Many young people said they felt intimidated and frightened by a police presence as they go about their daily activities.”
The report also notes concern amongst the young around gang-related activities, while highlighting the “overwhelming need to break down stereotypical perceptions surrounding gang crime”, pointing out that more residents were concerned about serious violence and gang crime than those with personal experience of it.
In an interview aimed at defusing tensions last week, Barnett said that he was sorry that the community is hurting, and signalled his intention to look to the future in how policing is done locally, which he stressed would not include changing the style of policing, but how the Met explains what it is doing.
He admitted that poor communication on policing tactics exacerbates division, and that the force “haven’t been as good at trying to really get to the grassroots of understanding what our young people see and feel”.
When this was put to Agbetu, the community educator said: “Me and you meet up, and the first thing I do is punch you in the face. You look at me in surprise, and I walk away. We make another meeting and you’re hesitant this time. We meet again, and I punch you in the face again.
“Now you’re really worried, so we don’t meet up. Then we go to a public meeting, and you see me. How do you feel?
“Then I come up to you and say, ‘Let me explain why I punch you in the face every time I see you. You remind me of someone who was a really unpleasant person, and I thought there was a chance you might be him. So I decided it was better to be safe and punch you in the face. Because unfortunately the next time I see you, even today, I might punch you in the face. I’m now explaining this to you so you can understand why I carry out this behaviour’.
“That’s our relationship with the police. I want evidence, data and facts. You don’t need to explain anything to me. Bring us the facts, and if we’re not happy with it, I want a commitment that we are going to transform those institutional practices so the same mistakes are not repeated ad infinitum.”