Who gets asked to “stop and account” and why?

Being mistaken for a pickpocket on the London Underground gives Sunder Katwala an insight into the changing practices of policing.

As I reached the top of the stairs at Embankment tube station, heading around to the ticket barrier, a voice behind me asked me to stop.

Had I dropped something?

As I turned around, the man produced a police ID, and said he wanted to ask me some questions.

Odd. I asked to see the police badge a second time. It looked authentic enough.

I was told that I had been observed as exhibiting possibly suspicious behavior, so the officer would like to know what I was doing and where I was going.

It was about quarter past six on a Thursday evening. I was taking the tube to Charing Cross station, so that I could get a train home, I said. The sort of thing that a lot of people were up to around that time in the evening, I imagine.

What was the suspicious behavior, I asked?

It turned out that I had been spotted in the very act of changing my mind.

You were headed in one direction to the Jubilee Line escalator, but you spotted a uniformed officer and went the other way, I was told. That had formed the basis for a theory, he explained, that I might well be a pickpocket, looking for a victim to target. Apparently, while cunningly avoiding surveillance by the law too.

I had indeed changed direction. After taking several steps towards the Jubilee Line escalator – and my most direct route home, via London Bridge – I had walked across to the much emptier platform on my right, realising that I could spend less time on the tube, and avoid those long Jubilee line escalators too, if I headed to Charing Cross.  

I hadn’t seen a policeman, just a lot of wet commuters with coats and umbrellas.

Perhaps I was in two minds because Westminster wasn’t my usual route home. I explained. I had been at the BBC offices on Millbank after doing an interview for Radio 4. Coming out into heavy rain, I had ducked into Westminster tube rather than walking down Whitehall to Charing Cross. (Historian Anthony Beevor and I had been discussing the government’s plans to commemorate the centenary of the Great War. We weren’t in the same studio, so I can’t use Professor Beevor as any kind of control in terms of his chances of having been stopped at Westminster tube on his way home.)

Was that suspicious enough to be stopped, I wondered? The explanation for stopping me meant, I realised, meant that the two police officers had probably come from the ticket hall at Westminster, and followed me on and off the tube at Embankment. Perhaps the slightly lazy one stop journey added to their suspicion that I was targeting my next mark.

Some people could hang around on the tube, for no reason, perhaps for eight hours at a time, in order to carry out criminal activities, hence the activity of stopping some people.

I had, I was told, given a perfectly legitimate reason for being on the tube network that evening, and so could go on my way.

Before going our separate ways, it did seem worth a couple of minutes more dig into how to carry out that tricky job of protecting us all from these undesirable criminals without too much inconvenience to law-abiding citizens, and in a way which Londoners of all types could trust.

My wife would be amused, I said, at my being taken for a pickpocket, I said. Why? They asked. She would doubt that I would make much of a pickpocket, I suggested, though I couldn’t be totally sure, having never tried it.

It felt to me that, even if I were a mastermind pickpocket, that I pulled off quite a good impression of a commuter. I was even, for me, at least a tiny bit more spruced up than normal, because my colleagues had rightly insisted I put a tie on to go and talk about the solemn issue of Remembrance on the BBC news channel about half past three. But perhaps the criminal masterminds can pull off the commuter look too, making decisions about who to suspect rather trickier.

So how did they decide? Was there any profiling involved, I asked. Of what kind?

Were single Asian males in their thirties travelling alone more likely to be stopped, I asked.

No. We just try to base it on behavior, I was told.

I am never quite sure whether or not to believe this official "no profiling" policy. I explained that my uncertainty about that is not based on a great deal more than my (inconclusive) anecdotal experience of seemingly happening to be stopped more often than my colleagues in think-tanks and journalism – though, only, as it happens at transport hubs. I am only, however, talking about four times in the last ten years overall: once at Stanstead airport, once at Luton, once on the Eurostar platform when it used to be at Waterloo, and now by the ticket barriers at Embankment.  

Any think-tanker knows that one could never derive any proof from such as small anecdotal sample.

But it has led me to ask the same question, and always to receive the same reply.

When I asked what details I could have from the police officers, I was told it was possible to record the incident, so I thought that I would like to do that.

Looking over the officer’s shoulder as he used his rather smart e-device, I questioned his initially selecting the option “white”.

I don’t think “white” is the right option for me, I said.

“That’s what I would have said you looked like to me”, he said. 

I wondered if that was over-compensating a little from one potential inference of the earlier profiling question.

But I thought non-white was the right answer if the question was ethnicity, while British was fine for nationality. That threw up a much more extensive menu, for “self-defined ethnicity” where I could choose an “M3 Mixed White/Asian” to reflect my Indian-Irish parentage..

That was one small insight into the stuff that the official statistics are made of.

Recording the stop seems to involve quite a lot of information – including giving your name, date and place of birth, and your home address if you filled out the full thing.

I wasn’t entirely sure that the opportunity would necessarily have been spontaneously offered if I hadn’t specifically asked for some type of identification or record, and opened up a broader policing policy discussion.

And the initial instinct to flag me for the computer as "white" offered confirms the insight that any statistics can only be as accurate as the source material.

But the officers were professional and polite throughout, and not necessarily any less so before I had mentioned coming out of a BBC interview either.

The hand-held printer – rather in the style of the Apple Store – took two or three minutes to print out, so we were able to have a bit more of a chat about policing, trust and indeed the politics of the think-tank scene. I established that I could do whatever I wanted with the receipt of the encounter – if, for example, I wanted to put it on Facebook – and was even given the Twitter account of the British Transport police. (Another culture shift there, as it tweeted me back this morning). 

The receipt shows that it was printed eight minutes after the stop, but we seemed to have covered a fair amount of ground.

It showed that the “power” was “Rec 61 – Stop and Account”, and the outcome was “no further action”.

The policeman asked me how I had found this experience, personally.

I said that it had been odd – but they had shown a professional willingness to answer my questions about it.

Stop and account, if you will, but it needs to work the other way around too.

I had found a rather more surly response when asking similar questions when being interrogated about my business at an airport. The policeman had found the same when flying to the US, so we turned out to have that in common too.

I said that I understood that the police have a job to do. My instinct was to be sympathetic to them, I said, because I felt they had tried to come quite a long way over the last fifteen years, certainly from some of the controversies that I had followed closely when I had lived in Eltham, on the Well Hall Road, during the inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case. So my instinct is that progress has been made – and that more progress is possible.

The question mark on which people want assurance have is that policing is effective, transparent and fair.

I think that may be why questions such as who gets stopped – and why – can still matter.

 

A policeman stands guard in an underground station. Photograph: Getty Images

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Getty Images.
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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.