Tristan Banton was 13 and travelling home from a family party. Joel Chigbo was 16 and cycling to school. Despite the different situations, both young men share similar feelings about their first time being stopped and searched by police.
“There had been drug dealing in the area and [the police told us] me and my dad ‘fitted the description,’” said Tristan, now 16.
“The situation was blown out of proportion. My dad ended up getting detained and, being 13 and seeing him in that state, it scared me. I froze. I was shocked.”
He continued: “I had my back up against the wall and I ended up getting detained. It’s one of those things that you hear about and think, ‘Surely that won’t happen to me?’ And then it does.”
Tristan, who lives in South Norwood, south-east London, and is studying for A Levels in business, philosophy and ethics, and government and politics, said he has been stopped and searched “five or six times”.
He continued: “To experience that at a young age, with my family, makes you think, ‘I’m never really safe’. To be stopped, searched and detained in front of them made me feel powerless.”
Fellow sixth-former Joel, who lives in Peckham, south-east London, said he has been stopped and searched twice – the first time when he cycled to school in May last year .
“I was stopped by undercover officers who said they had suspicions I was trying to get away from them. They said I looked at their car and [pedalled] quicker. The reason I looked was because I was riding across the road and needed to check both ways.
“It was so ridiculous that I could only laugh. I mentioned I was picking up my prefect blazer and they let me go. I was surprised but I was calm and polite.”
Joel, who studies psychology, economics and English literature and is considering a law degree, added: “When it comes to justifying their actions, don’t make it any easier for them to be violent towards you.”
Articulate and ambitious, Tristan and Joel know that hundreds of thousands of men and boys, spanning generations and ethnicities will have their own stop and search stories.
But having reflected on their experiences, they want all young people to know stop and search legislation to protect and advocate for themselves.
Tristan said: “When you’re approached by police it’s frightening; even if you’re one of the most secure people on earth, you feel fear. Knowing your rights is one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself; you don’t have to be violent and aggressive and fit the stereotype that they lay out for you.”
Joel added: “The culture of hatred towards the police is not constructive and only leads to more violent and aggressive interactions. Similarly, the culture surrounding stereotyping and preconceived judgements that cause stop and searches needs to change. [The community and the police] need to inwardly reflect change.”
These sentiments were typical of the remarks expressed by Gen Z changemakers at a recent stop and search event in Kennington, south-east London.
The controversial policing power, deployed to identify offenders and prevent crime, has long fuelled distrust in black communities in England and Wales – where trust in the police is around 20 per cent lower than the national average (75 per cent).
At present, black people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people (down from 8.8 times in 2020).
“The fear of stop and search is not unheard of in this area,” according to Reahana Gordon, 21, the leader of Lambeth Young Advisors (LYA) – a group of 15–24-year-olds who work with decision makers and local organisations to engage with young people in the area.
“Some young people will see the police and instantly their heart starts to beat [faster]. They turn away – it’s immediate discomfort.”
Reahana said her 18-year-old brother Davarel was “12 or 13” when he was first stopped. I sent him to get milk and he was gone for 45 minutes. There’s that fear it can happen at any time.
“My mum’s friends talk to me, and they are still experiencing the same things these boys are talking about. When does it end?”
Through survey work, the LYA discovered a worrying lack of knowledge about stop and search legislation among people of all ages. It spurred them to hold their first community workshop in July 2020.
Two years later, more than 150 people, ranging from pre-teens to pensioners, took their seats to learn more about stop and search at the Black Prince Community Hub, a short walk from Vauxhall station.
The LYA invited the police so they could understand the community’s anxieties. “If these are the officers patrolling our streets, why not give them the opportunity to understand their community,” Reahana said.
“We’ve gone from a time when people barely interacted with police to people intentionally coming to our event with the purpose of talking to them and understanding their job – and getting them to understand us as a community. Change isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but it gives us hope.”
The session was co-organised with Fight4Change, a charity that uses sport to “inspire and educate young people and adults to make a positive change in their lives”.
The first part of the workshop relied on audience participation; an interactive survey that displayed real-time voting was used to find out people’s understanding of stop and search laws.
Attendees were told “it’s OK not to know” and it was clear some questions resonated more than others.
For example, ‘Do you know what Pace 1984 is?’, ‘Is an officer allowed to use reasonable force if you obstruct a search?’’ and ‘Do you know what a 5090 is?’ garnered a mixed response.
As attendees mulled over where people can report concerns if they believed they had been unfairly treated during a stop and search, there was light relief when a man in the audience said, “Twitter!”
Organisers had appealed for calm and constructive conversations, and many were keen to quiz senior Metropolitan Police officers who joined a panel with community organisers and young people. Representatives from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and Hendon Police College were in the audience.
A black mother of two boys aged 10 and 14 said she took issue with the police using vague descriptions of suspects to justify a stop and search.
“Too often, young black boys are stopped because they match the description of another black boy wearing a black tracksuit,” she said. “It’s why I dress my sons in jeans and light-coloured tops, they don’t have any black hoodies… it removes some of that suspicion. I don’t want their childhoods to be overshadowed by this.”
The audience heard how community members have visited Hendon to share their stop and search experiences with new Met recruits.
Chief Superintendent Colin Wingrove, the borough commander of the Central South Basic Command Unit (Lambeth & Southwark boroughs), said he abhorred “unfairness and inequality” but wanted to listen to the community’s concerns to affect change.
He said: “I’ve felt that imbalance driving me through my policing career. Policing doesn’t always have all the best answers to deliver a service you would like us to do… it’s about how we open up [and get] young people involved in shaping and deciding how policing locally is delivered.”
Figures show the rate of stop and search rose 40 per cent in London during the first national lockdown. Of the 104,914 searches conducted between April and June 2020, just over 20 per cent led to an arrest, fine or caution, data from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime showed.
In the year to March 2021, police in England and Wales carried out 695,009 stop and searches under Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace) — up from 135,808 (+24%) compared to the previous 12 months, Home Office data showed.
Section 1 gives the police power to stop and search a person or vehicle where they have “reasonable grounds” to suspect they will find prohibited items such as offensive weapons and stolen articles.
While it’s the highest number since the 872,518 stop and searches recorded in the year to March 2014, recent figures are 41 per cent lower than the high of 1,179,746 in 2011.
A question is asked about Section 60 powers that give officers the right to search people without reasonable grounds. Police enforce it to prevent outbreaks of violent crime in a specific area within a specific time frame. In London, Section 60 accounts for 0.77 per cent of all searches, according to the Met.
In May, the Home Secretary Priti Patel announced some restrictions would be lifted; the length of time powers can be in force have been extended from 15 to 24 hours; the period a Section 60 can be extended to is now 48 hours (+5 hours), and authorising officers now only need to anticipate that serious violence “may” rather than “will” occur.
A man in the audience asked the police if the changes “could have negative implications on how minorities interact with the police”.
Chief Inspector Niall O’Neill, of the Central South Basic Command Unit, said: “We spoke about it pretty quickly because we knew it would have an impact and people would be concerned about that. As a senior leadership team we’re not going to change on that, around Section 60.
“We’re tight on our scrutiny around it whenever it is put in. We don’t have as many Section 60s in Southwark and Lambeth as people think.”
A Met spokesperson later told i: “We understand the impact it [Section 60] can have on communities. That is why [our] policy continues to have in place restrictions around timings, authorisation level, and informing local communities when they are in place.”
Carina White, a school governor and co-founder of the Black Mums Upfront podcast, agreed that now is the time for change – but warned it cannot be a “tick box exercise”.
She said: “We can’t have police being sent into the communities and have it look as though they are doing something. There has got to be action off the back of it.
“The community also has to be open to receiving the police and having those conversations, [however] uncomfortable those conversations might be, but we can’t keep saying, ‘We don’t trust the police, we need to see change’ – but not actively trying to get involved to be part of that change.”
The NPCC and the College of Policing recently launched the Police Race Action Plan, which aims to explain or reform race disparities among forces in England and Wales; part of this involves compulsory anti-racism training for all police officers to tackle prejudice and re-establish confidence.
Deputy Chief Constable Tyron Joyce, programme director for the Police Race Action Plan, said: “Currently confidence in the police among black people is far too low and we need to change that to be legitimate and effective.
“A new police action plan sets out the commitment of Chief Constables in England and Wales to become an anti-racist police service that black people can trust.”
After the workshop, as guests headed to the cafe to tuck into a Caribbean takeaway, I caught up with Tristan and Joel for their thoughts on the almost three-hour workshop.
Tristan, who was in a reflective mood, said: “Until five months ago, I hated the police. I’d think, ‘These people are meant to serve us, but they are instilling fear in my heart.’ But when I had my first positive experience I realised, ‘These people can do good.’
“We publicise a lot of the bad events between the community and the police, so if we publicise [more] of the good ones it will inspire a lot of the community, I think, to put a bit more trust than what we currently have. That’s what’s key, trust – but that starts with the police.”
Joel added: “If we see no change in police then [the community] is not going to want to change; we will want to fight the police and it will feel like the police are fighting us – and we will get nowhere.”
Stop and Search – the laws
Stop and search in England and Wales is carried out under two pieces of legislation: Section 1 of Pace requires officers to have “reasonable grounds for suspecting that… [they] will find stolen or prohibited articles”. These can include illegal drugs, a weapon, stolen property or something which could be used to commit a crime. Almost all (99 per cent) of stop and searches in the year to March 2021 fell under Section 1 of Pace.
Meanwhile, Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allows officers to stop and search a person without suspicion in a specific area. Section 60 accounted for 1 per cent of stop and search operations in the year to March 2021, according to government data. Of the 9,126 Section 60 stop and searches recorded, 3,272 involved white people –, the highest number of all ethnic groups for this legislation.
Policing is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland and officers follow different codes of conduct.
‘Knowledge is power’: The game-changing Stop and Search ‘Know Your Rights’ cards
Fitting neatly in a smartphone cover or wallet, stop and search ‘Know Your Rights’ cards have been a game changer for young people in the borough of Lambeth.
“We realised a lot of people didn’t know the basic legislation behind stop and search. We wanted to give people the information in a quick and easy way,” said Reahana Gordon, the leader of Lambeth Young Advisors (LYA).
“We’re in a time unfortunately when if you don’t know certain rules and legislation you might be taken advantage of,” she said.
“Knowledge is power — and it’s so important that young people are given the opportunity to learn when they want to and gain that knowledge for their own benefit,” she added.
The cards were created in summer 2020 and explain in clear and concise terms the ‘GO WISELY’ procedure that police officers must follow when they believe they have “reasonable grounds” to carry out searches under Section 1 of Pace and Section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act.
While officers do not need reasonable grounds for Section 60 searches, the card carries details of the legislation.
Lambeth Young Advisors said they have handed out more than 3,000 cards in the past two years.
Reahana said: “If you are stopped by a police officer you have the knowledge to make sure he or she is doing their job correctly. I think that is empowering.”