The decision by the Metropolitan Police to review the use of stop and search laws is certainly a welcomed development. According to a report in the Guardian last week the Met intends to halve the number of drug searches carried out. As an organisation that provides legal advice on drug laws we are well aware of how young black men are targeted by the police under s23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which permits stop and search where there is reasonable suspicion of drug possession. Often the most tenuous excuses are used to establish that suspicion.
In 2010 the Metropolitan Police carried out 250,000 stop and searches for drugs in the Greater London area, over half of those stopped and searched were under the age of 24 and both those from the black and Asian communities were significantly overrepresented. The arrest rate resulting from these stops and searches was 8%. Research carried out by Professor Alex Stevens at Kent University has found that black men are 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched for a drugs offence. This is despite the fact that the British Crime Survey shows that drug use is higher amongst the white population.
The same survey estimates that nearly 3 million people used an illegal substance in the last year, during the same period almost 80,000 people were found guilty of or cautioned for drug possession, a further 95,000 were dealt with under the cannabis warning scheme. This means that only 5% of those who use illicit drugs are caught up in the criminal justice system. This tends to be the unlucky or the targeted, police stop and search simply does not impact on rates of drug use in the UK.
The decision by Scotland Yard to review police powers in this area is a first step in improving community relations but more needs to be done. Young black men face unfairness throughout the criminal justice system not just in relation to stop and search. In the policing and prosecution of drug offences, Professor Stevens’ research shows that black men are 6 times more likely to be arrested and 11 times more likely to be imprisoned. The reality is that our criminal justice system still suffers from institutional racism. This issue needs to be addressed not only by the police but by prosecutors, judges and the Ministry of Justice.
The fact that senior officers in the Met are highlighting the fact that the laws are being applied disproportionately is progress. The Commissioner’s call for greater ‘training and education’ of officers on the street is certainly a starting point but recognition must be given to the huge rift that exists between the police and certain sections of our communities. This rift is invasive in a number of ways – it undermines community relations; it breaches the basic trust that should exist between an individual and the State; it acts as a barrier to young people joining the police either because of their own negative experiences or because of the judgement of their peers. This ultimately leaves us with a police force which does not reflect the ethnic diversity of our society.
Young people in these communities know that middle class white kids are not being stopped for drugs and those who are caught are generally treated leniently. The unequal application of our drugs law is a powerful reason for other alternatives to be considered. If we took drug possession out of the criminal justice system and dealt with it through education and health, well that would be 250,000 less searches a year and it may go to improve the police relationship with local communities.