Friday, 31 December 2010

Police have to win trust for new powers

According to reports in the Guardian, the police are asking for new powers to stop and search people without the need to suspect them of any involvement in crime. We are entitled to ask whether the police can be trusted with such exceptional powers.

There is no doubt that the police have a difficult job to do. Faced with a possibly devastating terrorist attack in a crowded location, it might be necessary for all of us to accept that they need the ability to stop and search anyone they choose, for any reason. In those situations we would have to trust the police to act only when truly necessary, and to do so effectively and fairly.

Unfortunately, recent experience suggests we should be careful before giving the police too many powers. After all they are asking for new powers because the previous legislation – Section 44 of the Terrorism Act – was so grossly misused that European judges ruled it unlawful.

More than 100,000 people were stopped under Section 44 in 2009. Not a single one of these stops led to an arrest for terrorism. Those being stopped were disproportionately from black and minority ethnic communities. On top of that, Section 44 was used against photographers and peaceful protestors. This type of discriminatory and disproportionate policing does not make us safer, but simply generates anger and distrust among law-abiding members of the community.

Here in Birmingham we are only just getting over the fiasco of the now discredited spy camera operation. This too was an issue of trust and accountability, and the police fell a long way short on that occasion.

If the police are going to make the case for additional powers, they need to show that they have learned the lessons from these failures. They have some way to go.