Is It About Time We Just Stop Stop-and-Search?

Elly Shaw

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Artwork by Anonymous

As the Black Lives Matter movement has recently dominated news media outlets and social media feeds since the murder of George Floyd, I have noticed that some fellow Brits seem to believe that whilst rampant inequality and racially motivated police brutality rage on in the US,  “at least we have it better here in the UK”. This is an insidious thought process. We may not have widespread legalised gun use in this country, but just because we do not have that, it does not mean we do not still have a severe problem of systemic racism at the core of UK society.

A few years ago, when I was training to become a data engineer as part of a graduate scheme, myself and the rest of my cohort were tasked with creating personal projects using some aspect of the data available publicly on the police’s open online database to demonstrate our freshly learnt coding skills. I chose to delve into the Met Police’s stop and search data and to use population projection data to highlight the levels of discrimination present in the application of this highly controversial practice in London. Stop and search is defined as a police officer having powers to stop and search a person when they have “reasonable grounds” to suspect they are carrying drugs, a weapon, stolen property, or something which could be used to commit a crime (“Stop and Search: Police Powers”). In the current political climate, as racial tensions run high, it can be difficult to know as a white person how you can use your privilege to try to help in a productive concrete way so, when I remembered I had all this previous code lying dormant on a memory stick in my childhood bedroom, I thought the absolute bare minimum I could do would be to re-run the code with three more years of data and produce an updated report.

This will not come as a shock to many, but the main finding of my original 2017 report was that young black men in London were the victims of a significantly disproportionate use of stop and search by the police. When I ran my code again with a few more years’ data, I realised that the disproportionate, racially motivated, use of stop and search against black people had not improved at all, in fact it had notably worsened. The following analysis is based on April 2015 – March 2020, all the data that was available for me to process.

This first infographic shows butterfly charts of the four full calendar years of data available. The left-hand side of the charts shows the number of stop and searches which took place, with the darker shading indicating when action was taken – which could be anything from somebody receiving a caution to being arrested – and the lighter colour shows all who were let go with no further action taken. On the right-hand side are the population projections broken down by ethnicity for each year.

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The premise of these butterfly charts is that if stop and search were fair, the butterflies would look roughly symmetrical. As is clearly visible on all four charts, something is amiss on the black pair of wings. All the left black wings are significantly overgrown compared to their counterparts. Although in London black people account for less than a quarter of the population compared to white people, in three out of the four years displayed, black people were targeted significantly more than white people. If stop and search must be used, it should be imperative that it be used proportionately across all demographics. 

According to the data, the disproportionate targeting of black people is not only plainly racist, it is also actively illogical. Across all four years, the percentage ‘success’ rate of action being taken against a person was actually higher for white people than black people. A 2013 British study shows that “black people are twice as likely to be charged with drugs possession, despite lower rates of drug use” (Eddo-Lodge 70) and this is not surprising if you really think about it. Much like anybody else experiencing their 20s in London, I have slowly come to realise that there is a certain type of white guy who loves to do cocaine – and he usually works in finance. When was the last time you saw a city banker being stopped and searched? Do the police just turn a blind eye to this? Is it one rule for the rich and white and another for everybody else? 

In order to look more closely at this issue, I conducted some analyses on how people were targeted over the full five years, broken down by age range, gender, and ethnicity, resulting in the following table:

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In the table, the darkness of each cell’s shade is proportional to the number of searches that particular demographic underwent in total, across the entire time period. When considering the two highest figures in the top left-hand corner of the table, it is important to note that in 2020 the projected population of white males under 25 is 719,000, meanwhile the projected population of black males under 25 is just 292,000. This underpins the same conclusion I took away from this project almost three years ago – that young black men in London are frequently the victims of racial injustice at the hands of the police. This blatantly discriminatory use of stop and search “damages the relationships between the communities affected and the police” (French).

Having looked at the overall figures broken down by demographic for the full five years, I then did calculations to assess how the likelihood of different ethnicities being stopped and searched has changed over time. I did this by dividing the count of stop and searches in a given year by the projected population in that year, broken down by ethnicity. This resulted in the following line graph:

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As is plain to see, the disparity across ethnicities is stark. It is unsurprising that the overall usage of the practice has increased over the last few years, given Met police chief Cressida Dick’s enthusiasm for the practice (Weaver), and Priti Patel’s expansion of stop and search powers (BBC). 

Due to this apparent upsurge in stop and search, I decided to then plot the full five years of data as a daily time series to assess the trend, as shown in the following line graph:

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As is visible from the trend line, there has been a marked uptick in the use of stop and search over this time period. I have highlighted some outliers in the data with number labels: these all represent the dates of the August bank holiday Monday for the past five years. What happens in London on August bank holiday Monday every year? You guessed it – Notting Hill Carnival. Notting Hill Carnival is a street festival that takes place every August bank holiday weekend, led by the British West Indian community. There has clearly been a severe increase in the use of stop and search on the August bank holiday Monday every year, but you may wish to know – was it even effective? The bar chart below shows in dark pink the ‘successful’ stop and searches, for which action was taken.

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As can be seen, the success rate does not rise remotely close to proportionately with the increase in total of stop and search. In fact, it almost halves – although it is worth noting that the ‘real’ numbers did increase. Notting Hill Carnival is a bastion of black British culture, so it is impossible not to see this awfully specific targeting as anti-black.

Much of this report might tell you what you already suspected, or indeed knew from experience, but the upshot is that if you thought things were bad, they are in fact getting worse. I think the police have a lot to answer for, considering they are increasing the use of this discriminatory technique and, as evidenced by the Notting Hill data, its ‘success’ rate clearly does not increase with usage. This begs the question: why are the police still using such an ineffective technique? Could police resources be better spent elsewhere? Will the police ever be held accountable for their disproportionate targeting? It is also important to note that this is self-reported data from the police themselves, and we do not know the extent to which these encounters are reliably recorded. Therefore, if you are somebody who thinks that racism is a big issue in the US and the UK is a safe haven from systemic racism, then it is important that you educate yourself further.

Works Cited

BBC. “PM to Create 10,000 New Prison Places and Extend Stop-and-Search”, BBC News, 11 August 2019, Accessed 11 June 2020.

Eddo-Lodge, Reni. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

Ffrench, Katrina. “Knife Crime Is a Real Problem, but Stop and Search Isn’t the Solution.” The Guardian, 13 August 2019, Accessed 6 June 2020.

The Greater London Authority. “2011 Round Ethnic Group Population Projections.” UK Government Data, Accessed 20 October 2017.

The UK Government. “Police Powers to Stop and Search: Your Rights.” UK Government, Accessed 14 June 2020.

The UK Police. Data Police UK, Date of Access 2 June 2020.

Weaver, Matthew. “Met Police Chief Says More Stop and search May help Reduce Knife Crime.” The Guardian, 8 August 2017,  Access 9 June 2020.

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Elly Shaw graduated from the University of Leeds in 2015 with a degree in Mathematics and Economics. She subsequently moved to China and then Taiwan to study Mandarin with scholarships from the British Council and the Taiwan Ministry of Education. Since returning to the UK she has been working as a data engineer, and in 2019 she started pursuing a side hustle in stand-up comedy, to extremely mild acclaim.

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