From January 1 this year police have swapped a stop and search form described as “a foot long,” for a simple receipt, and while some welcome the cut in red tape, critics point to Home Office figures that seem to support fears the powers will be overused.
The police’s right to stop and search without arrest is controversial, and has often been the faultline for friction between officers and the communities they police. In the run up to the inner city riots of 1981, police in Brixton stopped more than 1,000 people in just six days on grounds of only ‘suspicion’, causing a surge in tensions.
After a critical public enquiry, the hated ‘sus’ laws were dropped and replaced with clearly defined and limited powers to stop and search. But fast-forward 20 years and section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 has reintroduced those powers to stop without “reasonable suspicion.” An example of how broadly the police interpret these powers include bundling 82-year-old Labour supporter Walter Wolfgang out of the Labour Party conference after he heckled Jack Straw in 2005, to public outcry.
Figures for 2006-07, the most recent year available, show that the police carried out a total of 2,907,539 stops or searches – 4.8 per cent of the population, or nearly one in 20 of us. Only around 12 per cent of those resulted in an arrest, and this does not necessarily mean that charges were brought and someone found guilty of an offence.
More zealous stopping and searching has thrust unlikely groups of people into the path of police, among them photographers and trainspotters.
Public photography is perfectly legal, except in situations where a subject might have “a reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as a bathroom. But hobbyist and professional photographers have experienced harassment from staff, security guards and police in the name of security.
British Transport Police figures that record 62,584 section 44 stops at railway stations last year, and another 87,000 stops or searches under other laws, demonstrate the extent to which trainspotters have come under fire.
In October, 15-year-old schoolboy Fabian Sabbara was stopped and threatened with arrest under the Terrorism Act for taking pictures of Wimbledon station on his mobile phone, despite explaining it was for his GCSE course work.
Chris Milner, deputy editor at Railway Magazine, said that though train operators and police broadly agreed that rail enthusiasts posed no problem, frontline staff and managers were ignorant of – or ignored – the guidelines.
He said: “A lot of us remember [former Met Police chief] Iain Blair saying after the 2005 bombs: who’s got pictures, evidence that might help us? When there’s an incident they want our help, yet every day staff tell us not to take photos.”
Milner said he had travelled extensively around Europe and never been approached for taking pictures, but in the UK staff always had a reason to hand to stop photographers.
“It’s a shame,” he added. “Photography has never been more popular, and yet so restricted.”
Freelance photographer Carmen Valino was stopped in Canary Wharf by police who radioed to base every detail, from her name, address and description to the make and model of her camera and lenses. “They stopped me again later and asked me why I was still here, as if I had no right to be,” she recalled. And last month two press photographers were prevented by police from covering protests outside the Greek Embassy.
Yet guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers’ guidelines are clear: “Members of the media have a duty to take photographs and film incidents and we have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what they record. It is a matter for their editors to control what is published or broadcast, not the police.”
With the latest Metropolitan police figures recording more than triple the number of stop and searches, 157,000 for the year to September 2008, it is clear that having to explain ourselves and empty our pockets to the police will become more common for us all.
Powers to stop and search begin with the Vagrancy Act 1824, allowing constables to stop “a suspected person or reputed thief” on grounds of suspicion alone. Lord Scarman’s report into the inner city riots led to an end to this ‘sus’ law, culminating in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). This gives police the power to stop and search if they have reasonable suspicion that an offence has been or is about to be committed, including looking for drugs, firearms or weapons, tools for damaging property or theft, (eg. spray paint, jemmy) or stolen goods.
The Criminal Evidence and Public Order Act 1994, section 60, was aimed at seizing weapons from football hooligans. It allows officers to search for weapons, but only in situations where a senior officer believes it necessary to prevent “serious violence,” and those stopped do not have to give name, address or other details.
The Terrorism Act 2000, section 43 and 44, allows police to stop and search if they believe someone to be a terrorist, if “expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism,” or if looking for “articles that could be used for terrorism whether or not there are grounds for suspecting that such articles are present” – essentially, regardless of whether officers believe a crime has been or may be committed.
Your rights, as described by Liberty
Police conducting a search must: identify themselves and their police station; explain why you are being searched, under which powers and what they are searching for; take a written record of the search, unless impractical to do so; record your name and address if known; ethnic origin; date, time and place of the search; any objects found or damaged during the search, and any injury resulting from the search. But police have no powers to search you in order to find something that would provide grounds to justify the search.
You are entitled to a record of the search on the spot, or can obtain a copy for 12 months if this is not practical. You are not required to give your name, address or date of birth. You should be searched by an officer of the same gender. You cannot be compelled to give DNA or fingerprints or be photographed during the search.
Under a section 44 search, though police need not have “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has or may be committed, to use the powers lawfully he must reasonably believe you to be involved in terrorist activity. Under these powers, you may be arrested and subsequently compelled to give DNA and fingerprints.
Ministry of Justice stop and search statistics
|Stop – chance of being stopped by ethnic origin|
|Search – chance of being stopped by ethnic origin|
[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, February 2009]