The Home Affairs Select Committee has released a hard-hitting report into racial disparities in policing. The big talking point of the report is surely the jaw-dropping finding that the racial disparity in stop and searches – black people remain nine times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched in England and Wales – is worse now than it was at the time of the Macpherson report 22 years ago. This disparity cannot reasonably be justfied through data-led policing: as the report notes, white people are more likely than black people to have taken drugs in the past year, but black people were 2.4 times more likely to have been stopped and searched on suspicion of possession than white people.
Some of that is about wider attitudes in society. I have been stopped and searched on suspicion of possession. I’ve also had people approach me trying to buy drugs in locations as varied as Finsbury Park bus station, the Midland Hotel in Manchester, Brighton Pier, the University of Oxford, and on Whitehall. Part of the reason police stop and search black people on the suspicion of possession more often than white people is that many people’s idea of a drug dealer is someone with dark skin.
But there has also been a failure to tackle the problem in the police specifically, not helped by the unpicking of some partially successful measures implemented by Theresa May to improve the use of stop and search.
If you compare the performance of individual police forces, and the repercussions for failure, to that of schools, the reason this problem hasn’t been tackled is obvious. When a secondary school’s pupils graduate without passing grades in English and Maths, we don’t have a debate about whether or not the concept of a school is good or bad. That individual school and its leadership face consequences for the failure to improve its pupils performances.
Yet when a police force is found to have failed – to have stopped and searched in a disproportionate way, to have policed a peaceful vigil in a cack-handed manner, to have slowed down and frustrated an inquiry into its own corruption, or in the case of some police forces to have done all three – nothing much happens. We have an abstract debate about whether policing is good, or whether stop and search works. Quite literally everyone in the House of Commons thinks that evidence-led stop and search can be effective in reducing crime. But if your fire alarm fails to go off when your kitchen is ablaze, you don’t have a debate about whether or not fire alarms are a good thing, you change the fire alarm.
And if a school gets a bad Ofsted review, then the headteacher’s job is at risk. The flipside, too, is that both the government and opposition parties have serious debates about how to improve education, and how to reward excellence in teaching. All too often, British politicians act as if “excellent policing” is a contradiction in terms, as if the only lever politicians can pull is to improve the system is to give the police more money. Until that changes, we can expect many more reports like this one.