Police abuse stop and search powers to target protesters, suggests data | Stop and search

Stop and searches in central London increase by more than a fifth on weekends when protests take place, according to civil liberties campaigners who say police are misusing the tactic to deliberately target demonstrators.

Except in special circumstances, stop and search can be used only for a handful of specific reasons, mostly covering drugs, weapons and stolen goods, suggesting, according to activists, that police are stretching the limits of their powers.

“Our research shows an alarming pattern of police disproportionately using existing powers to deliberately target people exercising their right to protest,” said Mark Johnson, legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch (BBW).

The civil liberties group’s investigation into stop and search data comes as Priti Patel, the home secretary, is proposing a significant extension of the grounds for justifying a search. A new public order bill currently before MPs would allow police to search almost anyone close to a protest deemed to be causing “annoyance”.

“With new anti-protest legislation looming, this should come as a warning to anyone who believes in a free society where our democratic rights are protected,” Johnson said.

“The public order bill would grant officers new protest-specific stop and search powers which can be used without suspicion. This is a disaster for civil liberties in the UK. Protest should be treated as a vital part of our democracy and not as an inherent threat. It is the job of the police to facilitate peaceful protests, not inhibit them.”

Big Brother Watch analysed stop and search data for central London, the arena for most of the UK’s most significant protests, for the summers of 2020 and 2021.

On average weekends with protests, the number of stop and searches rose 20.5% above weekends without protests, suggesting, the researchers said, that police were targeting protesters extensively with the powers.

“Even when controlling for differing levels of coronavirus restrictions, the number of stops in central London was significantly higher on days there were protests compared to those without, even though the data shows demonstrators were no more likely to be arrested after a search than the general public,” the researchers said.

The disproportionate targeting of black people, among other concerns, has made police stop and search powers highly controversial. Those weekends in the early summer of 2020 when black people took part in Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests in central London saw the highest increase in the number of stop and searches, BBW’s analysis showed – although the rise was from a low baseline.

Patel’s public order bill, at committee stage in the Commons, will extend the reasonable grounds for a search to include a suspicion that someone is carrying items “made, adapted or intended to be used in connection with protest-related offences”.

It will also grant police a new power to stop and search without suspicion, allowing any officer of the rank of inspector or above to make an order allowing officers to search anyone in a specified area for a specific period when protest-related offences may be committed.

A number of new protest-related offences are proposed in the bill, including locking on or going equipped to lock on, obstructing major transport works, interference with key national infrastructure, and causing disruption by tunnelling.

Many of the proposals in the bill were previously knocked out of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act by the House of Lords, but the Home Office has said they are necessary to deal with “increasingly common” disruptive protests.

In a factsheet about the bill, officials highlighted the £4m policing cost of protests by Insulate Britain last autumn, ongoing protests by Just Stop Oil, which officials claimed had cost police £5.9m already so far in 2022, the £37m bill for Extinction Rebellion’s protests in April and October 2019, and a claim by the developers of the HS2 high-speed rail link last October that sustained protests had inflated the cost of that project by £80m.

A Metropolitan police spokesperson said: “The Met is not targeting protesters in their use of stop and search. We fully understand and support everyone’s rights to protest and we are always mindful of how we use our powers, especially stop and search.

“During protests there is naturally a higher number of people on the streets, and so there is also an increased number of officers deployed to these footprints to manage the protests and ensure disruption is kept to a minimum for those who are living, working and travelling through.

“Because of these factors, we would expect to see an increase in policing tactics being used – including stop and search”.

Extinction Rebellion said: “Protest is essential to the healthy functioning of democracy, and as we move further into multiple crises of inequality and climate breakdown it is more important than ever that everyone is able to make their voice heard.

“Instead, the home secretary is using this moment of increased civil unrest to withdraw our democratic freedoms in a frenzied power grab. The discriminatory use of stop and search makes protests and the expression of dissent less accessible to marginalised people and the public order bill will only make the situation worse.”

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