That time I was stopped and searched

Between April 2018 and March 2019 there were 7 stop and searches for every 1,000 people, down from 25 per 1,000 people between April 2009 and March 2010.

We all know the current state of the world in regards to racism and perceptions of law enforcement. The conversation has brought up some past memories of my own that I have been meaning to share but I feel like now is the perfect time to tell this story.

If you’re looking for me to validate your feelings about the police then let me tell you right now I am not going to do that. If you need to fuel your own biases and opinions then go to Twitter. I am not here to tell you what to think or reinforce any beliefs you may already have. I am not here to say that racism infests the judicial system nor am I here to argue the opposite. I just want to give an honest and frank account about the time I was stopped and searched by the police. Take from it what you will.

The story takes place almost a decade ago now, so I may be an unreliable narrator but I will do my best to tell the story as accurately as I can. It was the summer, school was out and at 15 years old me and a few of my closest friends (who are all black) had a job at a gym just delivering flyers and leaflets door to door. The job sucked, but it paid well. Honestly, we worked for the first couple of hours then spent the rest of the day playing Fifa. It was actually my first time working for actual money so that in itself was a very new experience for me.

Our routine was, we’d meet up then walk to the gym. One day after we had all met up we began our journey to the gym, walking down normal residential streets when suddenly two female police officers approach us. We are all carrying bags because we need them to carry the leaflets. Now up until this point the only interaction I had with the police was when I accidentally called 999 when I was about 7. Up until now the idea of racial profiling had never even crossed my mind. My two friends however were a lot less naive.

So we’re stopped, and me thinking this was all innocent and routine, we’re asked to reveal what’s in our bag because we “match the description” of a suspect from a nearby burglary that had taken place. And this is what a lot of us have all heard before. Do we actually match the description of a criminal or do we match the description of your own prejudiced view of what a criminal looks like? We gladly show our bags because we have nothing to hide. I remember embarrassingly that I had an empty McDonalds cup in mine, the officers thank us then go on their merry way. As they drive off they wave and I wave back much to the dismay of my friends.

I thought I knew exactly what had happened but I didn’t even think it could’ve been something more sinister whilst it was happening. With the pandemic of knife crime in London and it’s impact on young black males it is no wonder why stop and searches have become an overused tactic of the police. And remember this happened 10 years ago and is still happening today. Now I am older, and wiser I am a bit more privy to what my rights are and what the police can and can’t do. According to the Official Government website before a police officer searches you they must tell you:

  • their name and police station
  • what they expect to find, for example drugs
  • the reason they want to search you, for example if it looks like you’re hiding something
  • why they are legally allowed to search you
  • that you can have a record of the search and if this isn’t possible at the time, how you can get a copy

As I say I am an unreliable narrator but I do not believe either police officer did any of these things. It is not surprising that police officers are able to exploit young people who may not be aware of their rights just because they look like they could be involved in some criminal activity. It is literally a violation of human rights and we shouldn’t be subjected to the actions of a prejudiced individual.

A part of me however does want to believe that the interaction was exactly what I thought it was and in which case being searched would be no issue at all. I’m not a criminal, I’m not doing anything wrong and if I do match the description of a suspect then of course the police are within their rights to carry out their job. The sad thing is I will never really know but this has led me on to a slightly different mindset.

I am not going to sit here and say that I am constantly being stopped and searched by the police. I mean I didn’t grow up in a particularly affluent area but still that day has been the only time in my life where the police have stopped and searched me. For other people though it is a much more regular occurence, and to constantly be targeted in this manner, being treated like a criminal takes it’s toll and I am not going to pretend I know what that feels like. In the past decade though I have become exposed to the affects knife crime has on people.

In the year ending March 2019, there were around 47,000 (selected) offences involving a knife or sharp instrument in England and Wales. Of course not every offence results in death but that is around 47,000 cases of a potential death. I know people first hand who have been stabbed and who have stabbed others. Carrying a knife is much more than an action, it’s a mindset, it represents security, power and reputation and it’s not easy to ask someone to give that up. Being so close to the situation myself my perception of police stop and searches have shifted slightly.

My final word is this. If constantly stopping and searching me means you get at least 1 knife off the streets then I am okay with that. Yeah I may feel violated, I may feel disrespected but actually those actions may have just saved a life. Every year since 2009 the majority of knife possession convictions are from non-white people. It’s sad to know that I may look like someone that does carry a knife and I will probably be stopped and searched in the future and to keep in mind the bigger picture is just my way of rationalising what may otherwise seem like a racially fuelled action.

Now, conducting more stop and searches doesn’t automatically lead to less knife crime. Boroughs in London who have resisted politically pressure to increase stop and searches have been just as successful as boroughs who have been a bit more forthright about the process. But stop and searches was never and will never be a remedy for knife crime. It is almost like a last ditch attempt to try and affect any sort of change. Yes, it can lead to abuses of power and racial profiling but in my honest opinion this pails in comparison to the real destruction knife crime is doing to our streets. It is by no means a tactic I love and am advocating for but will the possibility of being stopped and searched deter someone from carrying a knife? Maybe.

Since 1995 black people have always been 4 to 8 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. That figure isn’t changing anytime soon. In these recent weeks I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on issues affecting young black people in the UK. Police reform is good but something I always come back to is knife crime and tangible ways we can fix that. Cancelling TV shows and toppling statues I don’t think are useful in tackling that specific issue which is a pressing one for young black people in this country. However if that’s something you feel strongly about then more power to you.

You may want to abolish the police but also take it upon yourself to know what your own rights and responsibilities are. We can spend our time being angry at those who uphold the law but we can also spend some time looking at ourselves. Is there something we can change about ourselves that helps to solve the issue at hand? The majority of our problems start with us, self reflection and introspection is important to affecting both internal and external change. Fight for what you believe in, but remember just because someone looks like you it doesn’t mean they’re fighting the same battle.

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