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17 July 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 7:01am

Stop, search, repeat: The endless journey of prejudice in the police and justice system

Stats and stories of innocent citizens stopped 30 times by police and key workers handcuffed during lockdown reveal a never-ending cycle of discrimination.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On a cold and rainy Friday, 14 February 2014, a young barrister was on the way to see his fiancée. He’d had a personalised plaque made for her, as a romantic gesture for Valentine’s Day. He was arrested.

Police stopped him, wrongly believing he had a firearm. They twisted his arms behind his back, handcuffed him, and pushed his face into park railings.

For half an hour, an armed police officer pointed a gun at him as he was searched. All they found in his bag was a hammer and nails he intended to use to mount the plaque on his fiancée’s wall.

This all happened near his home in east London, where he grew up. As he was humiliated in front of neighbours, his mother and brother happened to drive past and asked the police what was happening. After being taken into the police station, he was de-arrested and released with no apology.

His story, posted on Facebook by his wife Katie following the death of George Floyd, went viral on the social network, where it was shared by 42,000 readers.

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This was the seventh time Leon Lynch, 31, had been stopped and searched by police. The first was when he was in school uniform at 14, as his white friends were left alone.

It was then that Lynch, who is of Guyanan and Jamaican heritage, realised there was “something more to stop and search,” he tells the New Statesman. “It isn’t just based upon what they say to you – they deliberately selected me because I was black.”

A criminal barrister at 25 Bedford Row, Lynch speaks of his fear when he was stopped by armed police. “It suddenly dawns on you when you’re in that position that it doesn’t matter how much law you know, or how qualified you are.

“When they target guns at you, everything’s spoken very fast, you’re confused, they use extreme force, you can see how very easily that situation could escalate into something more serious.”

Lynch recalls the case of British man Mark Duggan, shot dead in 2011 by police who suspected he had a handgun. His death in Tottenham, north London, sparked riots that spread through England that summer.

“The suggestion he had a firearm is yet to be proven,” says Lynch. “In my case, the police were also saying ‘we thought he had a weapon’ – that [Duggan’s case] most definitely could’ve been me; it could’ve been any one of us.”

Lynch is not alone.


Much of the racial disproportionality that permeates throughout the criminal justice system starts with arrests.

Though the situation is improving, black people are still by far the most likely to be arrested. Some 32 in every 1,000 black people were arrested in 2018/19 – more than three times the ten in every 1,000 white people who were arrested. This figure is down slightly from 35 arrests per 1,000 black people in 2017/18.

Use of force

Black people were almost six times more likely to have force used on them by police than white people in 2018/19 – and when force was used on them, it was more likely to be more than one type of force. For Lynch, these included handcuffing, being pressed against railings, and being held at gunpoint.

Black people were the most likely ethnicity to endure every single violent tactic by police in England and Wales last year, from handcuffing to dog bites and use of firearms. Firearms were the biggest disparity, with black people 12.4 times more likely to be on the receiving end than white people.

They were almost ten times (9.7) as likely to have batons drawn against them (6.6 times as likely to endure their use), and were 7.8 times more likely to be tasered than white people.

Black people are more likely to experience every forceful police tactic

Number of times tactics were used per 100,000 population 2018/19

Source: Home Office

Of course, not everyone in the population will come into contact with police – so it might make more sense to compare use of force to the number of police interactions. Data isn’t published on police “interactions” by ethnicity, and use of force happens outside of arrest situations.

However, even when comparing to the the numbers of arrests, black people are still the most likely to be on the receiving end of every forceful tactic – and this is likely an underestimate of the disparity as 28% of use of force incidents don’t end in an arrest.

This disparity holds even when compared to arrest figures

Number of times tactics were used per 100,000 arrests 2018/19

Source: Home Office

In May, 30-year-old film location scout Ryan Colaço was stopped in his car by police twice within a week, subjected to handcuffing and his car window being smashed. Both times, he was searched for drugs. Both times, nothing was found.

“My trust in police is now lower than minus,” he tells the New Statesman. “I am a man who has never taken or been involved in any way with illegal drugs or substances.”

Ironically, the second incident took place as he was driving back from an interview with Channel 4 News about police racism. His car window was smashed in by officers as he asked why he was being stopped and requested not to be handcuffed.

He posted footage and pictures of the incidents to his Twitter account, @Ryan_Colaco. He intends to keep using his platform for “positivity and change”, highlighting what he describes as “unethical” and “excessive” policing in the UK.

“I don’t even want to use my car,” he tells the New Statesman, describing feeling “robbed” by the police. “I do not even want it anymore and have not even cleared the glass from it.”

He is “feeling very low” after his experience, and urges others who are similarly affected to contact StopWatch, an organisation that campaigns for fair policing. Having been stopped 20-30 times in his life, Colaço describes forceful confrontations from officers, such as being thrown up against a wall, and picked up and thrown into a police van. “These experiences stuck in my mind for life,” he tells me. He has never once received an apology.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for self-defence and restraint, deputy assistant commissioner Matt Twist, said:

“Officers have thousands of interactions with the public every day and force is rarely used. As the public would expect, most forms of restraint used by officers involve the use of handcuffs in order to arrest an individual.

“Where force is used, an officer must justify that it is lawful, proportionate and necessary in the circumstances. We are concerned that people from BAME backgrounds are generally overrepresented in these figures and in the criminal justice system as a whole.”

Chief constables “work directly” with local communities to examine disparities in their local data, according to Twist, but he adds that “this dataset is still very new and is therefore significantly affected by changes in recording by police forces”, pledging to “continue to improve recording”.

Stop and search

Often from childhood, the main interaction black people in Britain have with police is through stop and search. Black people were almost ten times more likely to be stopped and searched in 2018/19 than white people, based on their Census population distribution.

Despite narrowing at the start of the decade, this disparity has widened in recent years.

Disparity in stop and search is increasing

Number of times more likely to be searched as a black person than a white person

Source: Home Office

The former Charlton Athletic footballer, Paul Mortimer, has been stopped and searched 20-25 times in his life – a regularity that his 24-year-old son has since experienced from the age of 14.

“It’s almost like the circle being perpetuated again through my son,” Mortimer tells the New Statesman. “I look at him getting stopped for ‘driving suspiciously’, and think 30 years ago I was being told the same thing. Nothing’s changed.”

His eldest grandson is now 13, and Mortimer will have to speak to him soon to “make him aware of when, not if, he gets stopped by the police,” he says. “That, for me, is the saddest thing.”

See also: In Britain, we have our George Floyds too

As a counsellor and educator, Mortimer is most concerned about the deeper impact stop and search has on individuals, and therefore their families and communities.

“It is so humiliating, it challenges your masculinity, it diminishes your worth,” he says. “My son was quite a gentle lad, and now he has a dislike for authority and police, based on his experiences. The mental and emotional impact doesn’t come out in statistics. It’s long-term.”

Mortimer recalls being pulled up twice in one day on the same stretch of road, accused of driving a “robbery getaway car”, and driving out of a football ground with his eight-month-pregnant wife after playing in a match, only for a van of 15 policemen to search his car.

Mortimer says the situation is getting worse.

“When I see the impact on my son, on others I know, when I witness things that should’ve been stopped when I was a kid but are happening now, it feels like we’ve regressed,” he says. “Racist behaviour now is far more overt, it’s in your face. We’ve gone back to that being acceptable.

“I’m a child of the Seventies, it feels like the Seventies all over again, where police seem to be able to do what they want, and nothing is happening.”

Black people are the most likely ethnicity to be searched on all pretexts apart from terrorism (the most likely to be searched for terrorism were people of Chinese or other ethnicity – including Arabic people – followed by black people).

See also: Ex-officer Kevin Maxwell on leaving the police

However, the biggest disparity is in drug searches. Some 21 in 1,000 black people were searched under drug pretexts in 2018/19 – compared to 2.3 in 1,000 white people.

Black people are also more likely to have nothing found in a search than other ethnicities. There was nothing found in 74 per cent of searches of black people in 2018/19, compared to 70 per cent for white people.

Mixed ethnicity people are most likely to end up being cautioned or punished for something the police weren’t originally searching for – for example finding drugs when searching for weapons. Some 4.5 per cent of mixed ethnicity search outcomes weren’t linked to the original purpose of the search – followed by black people (3.8 per cent).

The action taken against black people is more punitive too. Looking only at searches where something was found, black people are more likely to be arrested than any other ethnicity, and are the least likely to be cautioned, receive a cannabis warning, or to have no further action taken against them.

A Home Office spokesperson commented:

“Nobody should be subject to force or any different treatment based on their race or ethnicity – the use of stop and search must be fair and intelligence-led, and use of force must be proportionate, necessary and subject to public scrutiny.

“Stop and search helps to seize deadly weapons and is a vital tool in the fight against violent crime – every weapon taken off our streets is a potential life saved.”

Coronavirus powers

A host of new powers for police under the emergency coronavirus lockdown measures has exacerbated the problem. Home Affairs Select Committee chair Yvette Cooper told MPs that 10,000 black males, aged between 15 and 24, were searched in London in May alone – equivalent to one in eight young black men in the capital.

Dwayne Francis, a 32-year-old safeguarding worker at a secondary school in Lewisham, was detained in handcuffs during lockdown in May, as police searched him and his car under the Misuse of Drugs Act (nothing was found). He had stopped outside a post office on his way to school, where he was teaching the children of key workers.

At another point during lockdown, he was on a daytrip cycling with a friend who was stopped and handcuffed by officers who could “smell weed” as they drove past. In addition, a young rapper he works with recently told him he had his phone “digitally strip-searched” by police while attempting to film footage for a music video.

“In this period of lockdown, I have loads of friends who have been stopped two or three times a day,” Francis tells the New Statesman.

He called his own experience “belittling”. “To know that I work for a common cause, as they [police] do, in terms of stopping youth violence, ensuring kids aren’t going down incorrect pathways,” he says. “I’m a professional individual who is a key worker, on his daily routine going to work – they just made a racial stereotype, based on the particular area I was in and what I potentially looked like, just from the colour of my skin. That was it.”

See also: I know how George Floyd’s family feels – I watched my brother die in police custody

Stop and search statistics during April and May show that across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, black people were 9.6 times more likely to get stopped and searched than white people – and people of Chinese, Arabic and other ethnicities were 20.5 times more likely to be searched.

Under lockdown, 80 per cent of penalty notices issued by police were against white people, while 12 per cent were against Asian and Chinese people and 4 per cent were against black people. That is broadly in line with their population shares, though Asian and Chinese people have been more likely to be fined. Those figures only include penalties where the ethnicity of the person receiving it was recorded.

Inequality within the police

Black people make up just 1.6 per cent of the police workforce in England and Wales – despite representing 3.3 per cent of the population in the last Census, taken in 2011. The majority of the workforce (89.6 per cent) are white, compared to 86 per cent of the population as a whole.

This workforce disparity continues up the chain of command.

Black people are underrepresented as police officers

% of police officer population by ethnicity

Source: Home Office

Looking only at police officers, rather than all staff, the disparity increases (just 1.2 per cent are black while 90.6 per cent are white).

Black people make up 1.3 per cent of full-time or equivalent constables and sergeants, 0.7 per cent of inspectors and chief inspectors, and 1 per cent of superintendents and chief superintendents.

Between 2007 and 2019, the number of black police officers over the whole of England and Wales only increased by 152 individuals – and the Metropolitan Police has said that if recruitment continued at current rates it would take a century before it has the same ethnic mix as London.

Majority white leadership is often blamed for bias. “These racist behaviours have not changed because those in power don’t know how to deal with it, because the majority of people in power are middle-aged white men,” says ex-footballer Paul Mortimer.

Nevertheless, when former police officer Kevin Maxwell – who left the police after 11 years over racism and homophobia – was recently interviewed for the New Statesman, he suggested mindsets had to change along with greater diversity. “We need officers of colour to join the police to think differently, not just look different,” he said, describing himself as “so institutionalised, I’d almost been taught to see black and brown boys as troublesome”.

See also: We can’t breathe – Gary Younge on systemic racism

Society requires “more than ‘poster men and women of colour’ to promote the police, businesses and parliament,” film location worker Ryan Colaço argues. “These advertising techniques mask the deeper issues we have with racism towards black, Asian and ethnic minorities and we still have a long way to go.”

Dwayne Francis, the school worker, has started a new training programme for new and existing police recruits in the south London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth. He says the first session went “really well”.

The course aims to “communicate with the community they’re working in”, he says, and “understanding their racial bias – a lot of them are white, middle-class, and we are letting them know from our perspective what we face”.

Francis aims to broaden the programme out across London and nationwide.

A new “oversight group” was also recently set up by the Met to examine the use of force by officers in London. Nevertheless, Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, denied to the Home Affairs Select Committee on 8 July the existence of “institutionalised” racism, “collective failing” or “massive systemic problem” with racism in the police.

“The disproportionality is there for everybody to see,” says Mortimer. “You’re asking me not to trust my eyes, my eyes tell me a different story.”

Deaths following police contact

In the past five years there have been 61 deaths of black people following police contact, and 972 deaths of white people, in all situations.

When compared to the relative size of the populations at the last Census, black people are 1.8 times more likely to die than white people. This is down slightly from 1.9 times over the previous five years – but numbers are relatively small and can easily rise and fall. 

The disparity is mainly explained by deaths in custody. Some 16 per cent of all police contact deaths of black people were in or following police custody, compared to 7 per cent for white people.

Writing for the New Statesman, Janet Alder lamented the pattern of these deaths after witnessing the CCTV footage of her own brother Christopher’s death in police custody in 1998.

The former paratrooper was dragged into a police custody suite in Hull by officers from Humberside police, his trousers and boxer shorts around his knees, and abandoned on the floor, unconscious. For 11 minutes, he lay face-down, his hands cuffed behind his back, gasping for his life, while five officers stood around doing nothing to help. He died aged 37.

“I feel sure the Floyd family feels the same way: that same combination of disbelief, shock and powerlessness,” she writes. “And I am sure they feel, as I did, the devastating frustration when none of the officers in the video attempted to lift a finger, even those who could clearly see his distress.”

Mixed ethnicity people were the most likely to be shot by the police in the past five years, followed by black people, when compared to the size of their population – again, however, the small numbers mean figures can easily fluctuate.

The criminal justice system

The disparities in policing inevitably have knock-on effects in the criminal justice system.

When compared to the relative size of the population, black people are far more likely to be prosecuted than any other ethnic group – though much of this is due to the proportionally higher arrest rate.

There were 10.6 people prosecuted for every 1,000 black people in England and Wales in 2019, compared to 5.4 mixed ethnicity people and 2.9 white people.

Of those prosecuted in 2019, mixed ethnicity people were the most likely not to be convicted of anything, followed by black people.

Looking at sentencing, white people consistently receive the shortest sentences – in 2019 that figure stood at an average of 19.5 months.

Asian people had the highest in 2019 (28.3 months), followed by black people (27.8 months).

However, much of this disparity is to do with the different types of crime being committed – black people received on average the highest sentences out of any ethnicity for theft offences and violence against the person in 2019, but received the lowest for criminal damage and arson.

As a result of the inequalities throughout the system – from policing to prosecution – black people are the most disproportionately represented in the prison system.

Black people are the most disproportionately represented in the prison system

% of population in prison

Source: MoJ, ONS

Roughly 0.6 per cent of black people are in prison in England and Wales – equivalent to one in every 176 people. That is followed by mixed ethnicity people (one in every 314). Just 0.1 per cent of white people are in prison – equivalent to one in every 936 people.

Such disparities and others were exposed by the 2017 Lammy Review, an independent review of treatment and outcomes of BAME people in the criminal justice system chaired by the Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy.

It is one of the many reports that has gathered evidence and statistics over the years exposing discrimination in the system. Yet still, not all its recommendations have been accepted by the government, which has so far only taken some of its advice on data collection.

“In recent years, we have witnessed a series of reports, reviews, commissions and audits on race,” Lammy tells the New Statesman. “Each of them points to systemic prejudice across many parts of modern Britain, including the justice system. We have gathered all the data, and examined the best ways to respond. Things will only change for the better when we see real action.”

Lammy’s concern is that we now have “better data, but little progress”, accusing the government of avoiding the processes that would deliver systemic change.

“The government should set clear targets to achieve a representative judiciary, as well as to have more diverse leadership in our prisons,” he says. “It is absolutely necessary to overhaul our youth justice system when 51 per cent of children in custody are black, Asian or minority ethnic. Learning lessons from US states about sealing criminal records is long overdue.”

Early on in his career, the barrister Leon Lynch made the choice not to prosecute – having witnessed and experienced the injustices he grew up with.

“The majority of my practice is in criminal defence, so representing people of colour who look like me, some who don’t, but nonetheless very much advocating for those going through that criminal justice system,” he says.

When his grandfathers travelled to the UK as part of the Windrush generation, they “experienced issues with the police when they were first here”, he recalls.

Both his parents too, during the 1980s riots in Handsworth and Brixton, “went through that level of animosity” from officers.

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“Now myself, as a third-generation British-born Brit, I’m living that same narrative over and over again. It really is sad.”

Update 23/7/20

This article was updated to include a graph showing use of force vs arrest figures.