Last week, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) announced that it will be investigating racial bias in the use of force and stop and search incidents in England and Wales.
With the intention of driving “real change in policing practice”, the announcement comes after Black British athlete, Bianca Williams, was stopped and handcuffed by the police alongside her partner in west London whilst their three-month-old son was in the car.
Initially citing blacked-out windows and “suspicious” driving as the cause of their stop, the Metropolitan Police went on to issue an apology and referred the incident to the IOPC.
This comes after Linford Christie – a former Olympic champion who trained both Williams and her partner Ricardo dos Santos, the Portuguese national record holder over 400m – released footage of the incident in which a distressed Williams can be heard crying out that her son is in the car as her partner is detained by police off-camera.
The search was carried out under section one of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984, which gives police the right to search anyone they suspect for carrying stolen property or drugs. 97% of all stop and searches in England and Wales in the last year occurred under this Act whilst the remaining 3% came under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 which allows stop and searches to prevent suspected violence involving weapons.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick specifically addressed the issue of handcuffing following the incident. This comes as the use of the practice by the Met has seen a fivefold increase in the last three years with 35% of all handcuffed being Black Londoners.
The Commissioner went on to say that “the IOPC will look at everything that has gone on and they will form a view. I don’t want and I don’t believe I do run a police service in which handcuffing is routine. It must always be justified and the justification has to be in the law and written down”.
Although the commissioner noted that her senior officer had apologised to Williams, her own apology was limited by a defence of stop and search which emphasised that many who are searched are “very violent repeat offenders who happen not to have it [illicit substances] there and then”.
It is no secret that stop and searches disproportionately affect those from BAME backgrounds, especially Black people. According to figures published by the Home Office, where the national average for all ethnic groups is 7 stop and searches per 1,000 people in England and Wales, this figure skyrockets to 38 among Black members of society.
This means that you are over five times more likely to be stopped and searched if you are Black in England and Wales.
In London, this figure is 51 stop and searches per 1,000 Black residents in the Metropolitan Police District. This number is higher still in Dorset, with an astounding 62 per 1,000 Black residents – almost three times the highest average among all ethnic groups for any single region in England and Wales.
In comparison, the average number of stop and searches conducted among the entire population is 7 per 1,000 people and 4 per 1,000 white people. Furthermore, the highest proportion outside members of the Black community is 19 per 1,000 among those who identify as Asian, followed by 17 per 1,000 for those who identify as mixed race.
However, even excluding London (which has the highest stop and search rates in England and Wales ) the average national rate among those who identify as Black is still 21 per 1,000 people – higher than any other ethnic group, in any given area.
The rate of stop and searches more generally has increased in the last year for the first time since 2009/2010; rising from 5 to 7 stops per 1,000 people. This increase is shared across all ethnic groups apart from British White and Chinese, according to the Home Office.
These numbers are far from proportional. England and Wales are 3.3% Black but Black people made up 18.8% of stop and searches in the last year and 37.1% of those under section 60.
Nor is this an issue confined to London and the Metropolitan Police: as the map shows, much of the south-east of England and the south of Wales have rates higher than the already highly skewed national average.
Instances of apparent racial profiling and institutional racism remain highly visible in Oxford, too. Last term, a video circulated of Ahmed Jeyte, a Law student at Oxford University, making his way back to college and being stopped by an undercover police car at 2 o’clock in the morning.
After a series of questions about which university the student attended (in an apparent reference to his college), the officer said that “this is just a conversation, I don’t know why you feel like there’s more to it”. This was after Jeyte expressed clear discomfort with the situation, calling a conversation at this time “weird”.
In an email seen by The Oxford Blue, Laurence East of Thames Valley Police responded to the video, explaining that the officer in question was new to the force and “showing promising aptitude”. The email acknowledged that “the words chosen by [the officer] are not ideal” and asserted that “the race of people involved is not a factor when establishing grounds to exercise relevant powers”.
The email moved on to say that consistency across officers with their own “policing style and personality” is difficult to achieve. Mr East went on to insist – in response to the issue of institutional racism – that he had not personally witnessed any evidence of racism from officers that he has worked with during his time on the force.
On a national level, the Independent Office for Police Conduct has acknowledged evidence of disproportionality, but highlighted that “even with the numbers and the statistics, particularly from stop and search data, we still need to better understand the causes and what can and should be done to address this”.
The decision by the IOPC comes amid increased attention on varied forms of racial inequalities within society sparked by Black Lives Matter protests in the UK and across the world. Activists have put particular emphasis upon the significance of less direct, more subtle forms of racism which exist alongside its more explicit incarnations in the use of racist terms and outright violence against people of colour.
As the movement has encouraged the general population to confront their own implicit biases and to educate themselves, it has also called for the ingrained racism present in British institutions to be explicitly called out and challenged. It is these covert forms of discrimination – such as the implication, whether intentional or not, that a black man in a jumper is more likely to be a criminal than an Oxford student – that activists point to as underlining the scale of the challenge ahead, both in policing and beyond.
Thames Valley Police have been contacted for comment.