Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
I think this is the last time I’m going to post about this. Pseudo-political wittering was not the intended use for this blog when I started it. However there has been a bit of a development since my initial post describing my thoughts on how the police use anti-terror laws to stop and search people. When I say people, I really mean me. Specifically me, in Clapham Junction on the 7th of March 2009. I know, I’m not a great philanthropist.
After the incident I wrote to a high ranking officer in the Wandsworth borough of the Metropolitan police to complain, making clear that I think randomly stopping members of the public with no reason for suspicion is complete waste of police time and the cause of unnecessary disruption and upset. I have since received a reply and engaged him in a brief email exchange in which I asked a few pertinent questions and a few impertinent ones as well.
My main gripe was that although I was told that I was stopped at random, the officer ticked the box stating I was stopped on grounds of “behaviour”.
You can see that there is no “random” box to tick. So as I am on record for suspicious behaviour I wanted to know what happened to that data.
Some of my questions were answered and some were artfully dodged. You’ll notice I’m not naming the high-ranking officer in this post. This is because he declined to go on record and asked that the contents of our email exchange were not discussed on this blog. In fact as soon as the word “blog” was mentioned he clammed up and told me he couldn’t help me further. (Bloggers! Aaaaaaaagh! To the hills!)
As I have no journalistic reputation to speak of, it probably wouldn’t harm me to post the email exchange in its entirety. However, I do have some respect for people’s wishes so I will only tell you some of the questions I asked and describe the answers I received.
My first question.
What happens to the record that I was stopped on grounds of “behaviour”? How long are the records kept? Are the records public? Can they be used by the police or any other government body in any capacity or investigation not linked to terrorism?
The response was rather shocking: turns out that stops are placed on the police stops database and are kept for seven years. They are not public records but they can be used by the police and certain government bodies in any other capacity not linked to terrorism.
So for seven years there will be a record that I was stopped on grounds of suspicious behaviour and any government agency can use the data whether they are investigating terrorism, littering or whether or not I am separating my paper and plastics. Great.
After seeing a report that all the section 44 stops by the Met and British Transport police in 2008 resulted in not a single link to terrorism I asked the following question.
How many stops under section 44 by officers of your borough have led to successful arrests under terrorism charges or confiscation of items linked to terrorism?
The high-ranking officer told me he could not divulge this data. Perhaps that means there is data to divulge?
I rephrased my question:
I previously asked how many stops had led to arrests or confiscations. If you cannot divulge this number, can you tell me simply if the number is more than zero or not?
The high-ranking officer declined to comment.
It may be true that there have been successful arrests but surely they would want to shout about this? It is noticeable that in the public records published for 2008, there is no separation of arrests made as a result of section 44 stops. The figures only include searches under section44, not people who were stopped and questioned without being searched (as in my case) and the arrest figures include D&Ds, possession, weapons, assault, robbery etc. Seems like somone wanted to minimise the appearence of the stop figures and maximise the apparent results.
I’ve found a great set of figures released under the freedom of information act that states between January 2003 and February 2008 there were 191,478 searches by the Met under section 44 resulting in only 2108 arrests. Crucially, it doesn’t say how many of these arrests were on terrorism charges or how many links to terrorism were found.
I really would love to know this figure for sure, even just within wandsworth, but I suspect I know already. A big fat zero. If I were a dedicated social activist I would request themore detailed information myself under the freedom of information act. I still might but to be honest my feeling of righteous indignance is waning over time. I guess I’m more of a social inactivist.
In addition, this senior police officer denied that teams of officers in his borough were sent out on shifts specifically with the main intention of performing section 44 stops. He also denied that he had instructed his officers to use the section 44 stop and search powers whenever possible. Both these statements contradict what the officer told me during my stop but hey, I’m willing to take his word on it.
In response to my question as to what percentage of those stopped under section 44 were blond, he gave me some PR guff about community relations, standard operating procedure and briefing and training processes in place to ensure no discrimination blah blah blah. I want figures. Like this or this or this. Or even this.
So what are these laws being used for? If it’s not to combat terrorism directly is this just a huge data collection exercise fuelled and legislated on the back of public fear? Are the lives lost due to terror attacks of recent years being exploited to make it easier for the government to put names to faces on CCTV? I’m starting to sound like a paranoid loony now so I’ll wrap up.
So to the end of my brush with The Man. If it happens again I certainly won’t be giving my name or address. You never know if they might use it to prosecute me for failing to separate my recycling.
If you are stopped under section 44 you DO NOT have to give your name address or any other details. You don’t have to explain what you are doing. Section 44 is for stop and search only. Here are some guidelines from Liberty as to your rights under section 44. And if you are really curious as to who my email correspondence was with, try Googling the phrase ‘useless bureaucrat’ and hit I’m feeling lucky.