Dawn Butler’s video exposes two problems with how we hold the police to account

Two quick fixes by central and local government could help prevent abuses of power and improve policing. 

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The Labour MP Dawn Butler has exposed a glaring anomaly in police statistics after posting a video of herself and a friend being stopped while driving a car in Hackney. The Metropolitan Police have apologised for their handling of the affair, but it also reflects two problems with how we collate data about police forces, which has major implications for the wider agenda of police reform.

The first, which came as a surprise to me when Sky News reported it, is that while the United Kingdom compiles a huge body of data about who is stopped and searched by the police, there is no equivalent and separate pool of information about vehicle stops. Embarrassingly, I had assumed that when I was writing about stop and search, I was writing about all stop and searches: but there is a data gap about traffic stops, because vehicle searches do not involve the same collation on ethnic identity and background. Data collection is a vital part of improving policy outcomes: if you can’t quantify a problem, it’s very hard to solve it.

That in recent weeks the sprinter Bianca Williams, and now a Labour MP, have both videoed traffic stops, while the Tottenham footballer Danny Rose has complained of being stopped by police asking if his car had been stolen, suggests that the opacity around which drivers are stopped is hiding a real and significant problem. It’s also a patently absurd way to treat part of the state: we wouldn’t allow a school to arbitrarily ignore the exam results of pupils who were driven to school, rather than walking, so why would we allow the police not to collect data on their use of vehicle stops?

The second problem raised by Butler’s story is that Hackney’s police have been criticised in recent times by locals for a greater racial disproportionality in their use of stop and search than that in neighbouring boroughs. Hackney residents are also the second least likely group of Londoners to agree with the statement “the police are there when needed”. This exposes why the familiar excuses about police overreach do not work. There is no policing challenge in Hackney that does not also apply in its neighbouring boroughs, yet relations in the borough between police and residents are worse in Hackney than in equivalent areas.

There is a direct link between police forces that disproportionately search one ethnic group over another and police forces that are bad at using stop and search to actually catch criminals. Merseyside Police, who are more likely to stop and search white people than black people, have a very low arrest rate: they take many more stop and searches to successfully find someone breaking the law than Leicestershire, Durham or City of London police, who have a much lower disproportionality. The same is also true for the Dorset and Metropolitan Police, both of which are more likely to stop and search black people, and also take many more stop and searches to successfully find someone breaking the law.

If you think about this, it makes perfect sense: if a police force’s use of stop and search is evidence-led, then it will be more effective than if prejudices, whether about race, class or religion, are fuelling some or all of the searches.

The distinct London problem is that the capital’s borough police forces have a great deal of operational independence but are assessed collectively. Sadiq Khan could fix this problem overnight by publishing borough-by-borough figures on these metrics through his police and crime directorate (the Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime). That could drive up and spread best practice and weed out problems. In this case, we already have the information: it’s just not published and widely discussed in that format.

These two quick and easy changes to how we collect and publish data about the way in which police use their powers would help us identify abuses of those powers and improve policing. Dawn Butler’s video is an opportunity to do both of these. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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