The number of stop and searches carried out in London rose drastically during the pandemic, data from the Metropolitan Police’s Stop and Search Dashboard reveals.
Since 2018, stop and search figures have been slowly increasing. However, the number during the first four months of lockdown rose starkly year-on-year, from 92,916 (March to June, 2019) to 128,046 (March to June, 2020), an almost 40 percent jump. In the month of May alone, stop and searches more than doubled year-on-year, rising from 21,593 in May of 2019 to 43,844 in May of 2020. This is equivalent to a 103 percent rise.
As ever, Black people have been disproportionately affected by this increase. From June of 2019 to June of 2020, 123,566 Black people were stopped and searched by the police, equivalent to 92 in every 1,000 Black people. In comparison, 118,176 white people were stopped over that same period, equivalent to 24.2 in every 1,000 white people.
While example cases are numerous, a few have drawn more attention than others. Earlier this month, a teenager who was attacked by a far-right demonstrator in London was searched by the police officer he asked for help. This weekend, a Black man who was driving back from a Channel 4 interview about police racism was stopped by officers who smashed his car window and handcuffed him under the incorrect suspicion he was concealing drugs. Also this weekend, Olympian Linford Christie tweeted that two of the athletes he coaches, both Black, were stopped in their car and handcuffed by police outside their home under the incorrect suspicion they were concealing weed.
Compounding the issue, since late March police have had enhanced powers under the Coronavirus Act, such as the ability to disperse and arrest people violating new laws or guidelines. This too has negatively impacted people of colour disproportionately; BAME people have been fined more under this legislation than white people, according to analysis by Liberty Investigates and the Guardian.
“The Coronavirus Act was drawn up really quickly and really vaguely,” explains Sara Chitseko, head of development and policy at anti-racist organisation 4Front Project. “What it’s meant is that the communities that are already over-policed and over-criminalised are most harshly affected by this new legislation. [Police have] just taken it into their own hands, and it’s an excuse for them to further abuse their powers – I think that’s why the rise has come about.”
Joah, who lives in Brixton, was stopped twice in one day while walking his friend’s dog. In the first incident, he and his friends were handcuffed while police searched them. He filmed both incidents, which have been viewed over 8,000 times.
“As soon as you’ve been put in handcuffs, your freedom’s gone already,” he says. “All your rights. That’s how you feel. You’re an innocent person, but you’re in handcuffs, so you’re not innocent anymore. It doesn’t make any sense to me. The feeling it gives you of powerlessness… and you know if you resist them putting on the handcuffs, it’s going to turn into something much worse.”
The second stop and search of the day occurred a few hours later in Brockwell Park, south London. In the video, an officer tells Joah that he matches the description of someone reported for robbery with a knife, identified as wearing a grey tracksuit. Joah claims he was searched by police, but his white friend wasn’t.
“It wasn’t funny, but we had to laugh,” says Joah. “By this time I was so tired. We tried to tell them, ‘You’re ruining our community, do you know how this makes us feel?’ Trying to talk to them on a human level – and the guys were laughing in our faces.”
In response, a London Metropolitan Police spokesperson said, “The MPS has significantly increased its use of stop and search during the lockdown period. This rise was due to the reduction in emergency calls and other operational demand during the lockdown period that meant the Met was able to focus more of its officers on frontline duties – with a particular focus on violence and drugs. Additionally, the lockdown made suspicious activity in public places more visible to officers.
“Officers are not targeting young Black men, we’re policing in areas where violence is high and we are trying to protect people. We do not underestimate the impact that the use of those powers has on communities and individuals, and acknowledge that historically stop and search has caused concerns across those communities. We are now far more accountable than ever before, and the use of stop and search powers are subject to scrutiny both internally and externally, through community monitoring groups. We know that to maintain public confidence in its use, stop and search must be used in a fair, effective and professional manner.”
Since posting those two videos, Joah has been stopped and searched again, upping the total to three times in the last three weeks. “You feel lots of emotions: anger, sadness, frustration, despair,” he explains. “All of these things, and you just start thinking, ‘This shit is never going to change.’ It’s been my whole life. How is every situation the same? It doesn’t change. The police speak to me the same way they spoke to me when I was 13. It’s so institutional.”