Letting the police off the leash will not stop gun crime

I returned to London from the Caribbean to find the stop-and-search issue bubbling and backfiring in the British press. I was surprised. The matter was surely settled in the Macpherson report: the problem was not stop-and-search itself, but the police practice of stopping vastly more blacks than whites. As a result, police commanders in some areas retrained their men in the use of stop-and-search.

William Hague and Ann Widdecombe tried and failed to resurrect the issue during the last general election campaign, making a dramatic visit to Brixton police station with television cameras in tow. The then local commander, Simon Foy, refused entry to the cameras and had cool and frank discussions with the politicians. It was hinted within the station that Widdecombe and Hague were not welcome.

So why now should Mike Best, the editor of the Voice, the black British weekly, call for the use of stop-and-search in the fight against crime? Stop-and-search has never ceased to be a weapon available to the police. Best appears to be saying that we should return to the pre-Macpherson situation, that the police should again be let off the leash because of the rise in gun crime.

Macpherson was a tremendous victory for the black community: we won the freedom to walk the streets, to enjoy ordinary and simple pursuits without being molested by the police. Senior officers were convinced that the alienation of the black community on this score was cause for alarm. The Police Federation, the Daily Mail and the right wing of the Conservative Party held the opposite view: that the black community should be kept at heel.

Before Macpherson, blacks, particularly young blacks, were stopped and searched willy-nilly. Now the police are forced to adhere to the law, and officers must reasonably suspect people before stopping them. Reasonably is the word; being black and young is not a reason for suspicion. And it follows that many stops and searches had been illegal and may have constituted assaults on citizens. If you are stopped on the basis of racial prejudice, then, once the officer lays his hands on you, you are perfectly entitled to use reasonable force to resist. The result would be enormous disorder.

The idea that more stop-and-search would put an end to gun crime is nonsense. If a police officer reasonably suspects a young man or woman of being in possession of a pistol, he is not going to use stop-and-search. He will call for the armed response unit from the nearest station. I have seen it happen: police officers lying on their stomachs on the pavement, on rooftops, abseiling through windows and the like. That continues on a regular basis.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has proposed that, once stopped and searched, the victim should be given a document explaining who stopped him/her and why. This is nothing new: the policy was instituted in Brixton and quietly abandoned because of the paperwork involved.

The likes of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph have elevated Mike Best to the position of a black leader. But the Voice has declined substantially over the years. In 1995, it sold 46,000 copies; by 1999, this had plunged to 30,000. There have been no audited figures since then, but some speculate that sales are now down to 15,000 or fewer. What better way to revamp circulation than by intervening on an issue bound to inflame passions? But it will backfire. Many in the black community are calling for a boycott of the Voice.

In the past 20 years, I have been stopped and searched a total of ten times. Once, in the West End of London, an officer claimed to have seen me dipping into women's handbags with intent to steal. He was lying though his teeth. Similar experiences have been widespread. It is through accurately reporting such events that the Voice has the best prospect of revival.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Far from the Promised Land