Now, this post has nothing to do with social media or the internet. It does however have something to do with me so I feel justified in using this blog as a platform for a bit of a whinge.
Last Saturday, after a quiet potter around Victoria, my girlfriend and I got the overland back to Clapham Junction. As we were walking through the shopping area next to the station she decided to pop into a shop called Accessorize, which, for those of you not familiar which the chain, is pretty much my idea of what hell will be like. All sequins and bangles and tat; filled with cackling, legging-clad high street fashionista. No thanks.
I opted to wait outside and catch up with the weekly wittertainment from Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s brilliant film review podcast.
I was leaning against the shop window whilst listening and trying to decide which made me look the least silly: chuckling out loud or grinning inanely whist stifling chuckles. Kermode moved on from his amusing rantings and descriptions of Renee Zellweger (like a hamster squinting at the sun :-) ) and moved on to reviewing the Watchmen movie. He was comparing it rather unfavourably to the film adaptation of another Alan Moore graphic novel, V for Vendetta – a film I like very much. It was while my thoughts were on Alan Moore comics, police states, fascism and the abuse of public fear to enforce totalitarianism that I was approached by two uniformed police officers.
I smiled a greeting and paused my podcast.
The first officer, one Colin Swan of the the Wandsworth Borough Police told me that he and his colleague (unnamed) were stopping and searching people under Section 44 of the anti-terrorism act and that he would be asking me a few questions and searching me.
I’m not normally anti-police and I certainly didn’t have anything to hide but I was furious. Was leaning against a shop window suspicious behaviour? What grounds did he have to search me? So I asked him.
“We’re conducting random stops in this area” came the reply.
Random eh? A bit of background for those who don’t know me. I am a lapsed catholic of mixed Anglo-Indian heritage. I have dark hair and my skin colour, while not the out-and-out brown of an Indian subcontinental, could be described as beige. I don’t think I’m being cynical when I say that I suspect the last factor had something to do with my being approached. I was tempted to ask Colin Swan how many blonde people he had “randomly” stopped that day but thought better of it.
Instead, quietly fuming, I handed over my driver’s license and stated that I strongly objected to being questioned in this manner. The unnamed colleague (who appeared to be more senior) decided they wouldn’t need to search me after all. Maybe I wasn’t giving off enough of a Muslim “vibe”.
The human rights organisation Liberty explains section 44 of the terrorism act as follows.
Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allows the police to stop and search anyone in a specific area.
Before Section 44, the police could only stop and search individuals if they had ‘reasonable grounds’ and certain criteria were met. That is no longer necessary, and we have seen Section 44 powers used against anti-war, anti-weapons and anti-capitalist protestors.
The power to stop and search under anti-terrorism powers should only be used when there is evidence of a specific terrorist threat. It should not be simply an addition to the day to day powers of officers policing protests.
After further research, that last paragraph appears to be the writer’s opinion rather than any official guideline. A recent BBC article states that “officers have been advised to use the power sparingly” but Act 44 itself seems to imply that the policeman may stop and search whomever he pleases, regardless of whether he suspects terrorism, provided authorisation has been given to use these powers in that area. Indeed, act 45, which deals with the exercise of power states:
The power conferred by an authorisation under section 44 may be exercised whether or not the constable has grounds for suspecting the presence of articles of the kind which could be used in connection with terrorism.
My mood was slightly elevated by the unwitting interruption of events by my mate Adam, who saw me and had already bowled over and and shouted an enthusiastic “Alright!” before he registered the police presence. The dawning realisation on his face was priceless; I reckon he thought he had just associated himself with a shoplifter. He laughed out loud when I told him what was going on, which cheered me up and boosted my confidence.
Inspired by Adam’s laughter and perhaps the spirit of Alan Moore heroes like V, I started to address some questions toward the unnamed, senior officer about the motives behind the policy of using Section 44 anti-terror legislation this way. Admittedly, my subversive action was a little more polite and middle-class than the aforementioned superhuman anarchist’s but I used some long words (some of which I understand) and a haughty, indignant demeanour to my advantage. In the conversation that took place, while officer Colin Swan wrote out a stop/search record very slowly and with scant regard for spelling conventions, a few interesting points came to light.
Firstly, officers from Wandsworth Borough police have been instructed by the Borough Commander, Stewart Low, to use the powers afforded to them by section 44 whenever possible. Not whenever appropriate. Not whenever necessary, but whenever possible. I asked the unnamed officer to repeat this several times and he confirmed it each time.
So keen are Wandsworth Borough Police to be seen to be attempting to combat terror that each team of two officers is given a quota of stops they have to perform each day. Woe betide Colin Swan or any other officer who returns to the station after a shift without the required number of stop/search slips.
“But Sarge, there was an aggravated burglary to attend,” our poor, naive Colin might argue, hoping logic and common sense will prevail over bureaucracy. No such luck.
Is this the best use of police time? Is it an effective method against terrorism? Or is it just time-wasting and posturing that makes a mockery of the terrorism act and will cause police and general public alike to take the act less seriously?
Centre Right has some interesting stats on the use of Section 44 in London in 2008
- Number of people stopped nationwide by British Transport Police using s 44: 160,000
- Number of people stopped in London by the Metropolitan Police using s. 44: 200,000
- Number of people amongst the 360,000 stopped under s. 44 and found to have any terrorist material or links: 0
I shouldn’t be too hard on PC Colin Swan and PC Noname. They were quite polite and had the decency to be a little sheepish about the whole thing. PC Noname even went as far as telling me he didn’t agree with the policy and advised me to write an email to Borough Commander, Stewart Low. I think I shall, although its very tempting to just start a Google bomb on the useless bureaucrat.
As for good old Colin, he might not be the world’s greatest speller but he was good enough not to pepper-spray me when I asked him, “Is this what you joined the police for?”
In response to my impertinence he didn’t club me to the ground a la Stephen Fry’s Gordan Deitrich, he simply looked a bit forlorn and said, “No”.
For those of you who are still interested after wading through this rambling post, here is a copy of my stop/search form. I’ve blanked out my details.