Black people are 26 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by British police, the most glaring example of “racial profiling” researchers have seen, according to an international report.
The analysis of government data has caused claims of discrimination from campaigners who say the findings corroborate concerns that black and Asian Britons are being unfairly targeted.
The United States civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who arrived in London yesterday to launch a campaign aimed at curbing what he said was stop-and-search discrimination, described the figures as “astonishing”.
The figures relate to stop-and-searches under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which was introduced to deal with football hooligans and the threat of serious violence. It allows police to search anyone in a designated area without specific grounds for suspicion.
Analysis by the London School of Economics and the Open Society Justice Initiative found that there were 41.6 Section 60 searches for every 1000 black people, compared with 1.6 for every 1000 white people – making black people 26.6 times more likely to be stopped and searched.
Asians were 6.3 times more likely to be stopped than whites, according to the analysis of Ministry of Justice figures for 2008-09.
The data reveal a marked escalation in relative searches of ethnic minorities in England and Wales. In the previous year, blacks were 10.7 times more likely to be stopped than whites and Asians 2.2 times more likely.
Ben Bowling, professor of criminal justice at King’s College London, said: “The police are making greater use of a power that was only ever meant to be used in exceptional circumstances and lacks effective safeguards. This leaves room for increased stereotyping which is likely to alienate those communities which are most affected.”
His concerns are exacerbated by new draft Home Office guidance, which will allow police to stop and search on the basis of ethnic origin under Section 60, a development which critics say could see a return to the contentious “sus” laws of the 1980s, which gave police powers to routinely stop black men.
Yesterday, a new campaign group called Stopwatch was to ask the Government to abandon the use of stop-and-search powers that did not require reasonable suspicion.
Researchers at the Open Society Justice Initiative, part of the Open Society Foundation supported by billionaire financier George Soros, said the British figures provided the widest “race gap” in stop-and-search that they had found internationally.
The previous highest use of stop-and-search powers against ethnic groups was on the Moscow Metro, where non-Slavs were 21.8 times more likely to be stopped by Russian police than Slavs.
A study on the Paris Metro found passengers of Arab appearance were more than seven times more likely to be stopped. In New York, blacks and Hispanics are nine times more likely to be stopped than whites.
Dr Rebekah Delsol of the Open Society Justice Initiative said that even factoring in slight differences in methodology and data gathering, the international comparison revealed “staggeringly high” levels of what she said was racial profiling among British police using Section 60.
Dr Michael Shiner, of the Mannheim Centre for Criminology at LSE, said additional safeguards were necessary. “What is interesting is the rapidness of the change,” he said. “Year-on-year you would ordinarily not see much of a difference, but this is a staggering increase of disproportionality at a time when there is a massive increase in the use of Section 60.”
Shiner and Bowling said the use of the stop-and-search power would increase tension and damage confidence in the police. Use of Section 60 has risen more than 300 per cent between 2005 and last year.
The figures coincide with plans to weaken the way stop-and-searches are recorded by police. Draft Home Office documents reveal that recording will be weakened so heavily that repeat stops of the same person will no longer be recorded. They also open the way for officers to search someone under Section 60 on the basis of ethnicity.
I didn’t swear, I didn’t struggle’
Leemore Marrett jnr was walking to his tap-dancing lesson when he noticed the police watching him.
“I was wearing smart trousers and a white shirt because I was going to the theatre in the evening and these police officers were looking at me.
“The next moment they all jumped out of their vehicle, about six or seven of them. They were hurling abuse at me: ‘What are you looking at? What are you looking at?’ I was in shock. I asked them about section 61, introduced after Stephen Lawrence [the victim of a racist murder], which means they have to say why they are stopping me.
“They just said, ‘Get in the van’. I didn’t swear, I didn’t struggle, they dragged me down to the police station, where I was held for two hours until my tutor got me out.”
That was Marrett’s first experience of stop-and-search, six years ago in South London, when he was 18 and studying at a performing arts school. In the past two months he has been stopped four times by officers while driving his Volkswagen Golf. He says his black friends are routinely stopped, but his white friends never are.
He warns of a generation of black people who distrust the police.
“Being stopped has a negative impact, especially when you are innocent and going about your business. Often they don’t even give you a reason. It only takes one bad experience for everyone to start keeping their distance from the police,” says Marrett.
“I thought sus [controversial police powers once used to routinely stop black men] was eradicated in the Eighties. Evidently not.”