Police rethink use of ‘stop and search’

Police are holding a review of much-criticised “stop and search” powers over concerns the tactic used to target possible terrorists was causing more harm than good by alienating the Muslim community.

Senior officers are warming to “new thinking” about the powers which would see people only stopped on the basis of prior intelligence and not their appearance, according to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

“I think we need to move from the concept of stopping on appearance and ethnicity,” Richard Gargini, ACPO’s national coordinator for community engagement, told Reuters at a conference to discuss Islamophobia. “I sense an atmosphere among police leaders that it’s time to reflect upon where we go with stop and search. Is it having an adverse impact on police and community relations?”

Under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, officers have the power to stop and search people in an area seen as being at risk from terrorism even if they are not suspected of any breach of the law.

Many Muslim groups have argued the powers have been abused by police, particularly after the bomb attacks on July 7, 2005 when four British Islamists killed 52 people on London’s transport system.

Figures show that use of the power against those of Asian appearance has rocketed since the September 11, 2001 attacks, and Muslim community leaders have warned it has helped alienate Britain’s Muslims, so helping the cause of extremists. “We know the levels of trust and confidence that the community has in the police has gone down,” Azad Ali, chairman of the Muslim Safety Forum, which advises police on Islamic issues, told Reuters.

Top officers and the government have repeatedly said the authorities need the help and support of the Islamic community if they are to defeat militants.

Gargini said senior officers, including Andy Hayman, the head of London’s specialist operations unit which oversees counter-terrorism, were now questioning the stop and search benefits against the damage its indiscriminate use might cause.

However he added there was no suggestion police would give up the power altogether. He also rejected suggestions that officers should simply use racial profiling to target suspects at airports, a notion raised last August after detectives said they had foiled a plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners. “It can’t be a blunt tool,” he said.

The training of police officers themselves also needed examining to deal with ignorance, ranging from the use of insensitive words to eliminating the belief that Islam was inherently extremist. “We believe there is a lack of understanding of Islam among our own staff,” he said.

In a further move to strengthen relations, London police commissioner Ian Blair had earlier told the conference that police were finalising plans to allow intelligence to be shared with a respected group made up of Muslims of different ages and backgrounds before major operations.

The move comes into response to criticism of heavy-handed tactics used during an anti-terrorism raid in Forest Gate in east London when a man was shot by detectives hunting for a suspected chemical bomb. No bomb was found and the man and his brother, who was also arrested in the raid, were released without charge.

Blair said “sufficient information” could be given to the new body so they could “act as spokespeople to reassure their communities that the police action is proportionate and justified or to tell us early when they don’t think it is.”

Reuters, 24 January 2007