Judging A Book By Its Cover: Racial Profiling And The Police In England And Wales

Racial profiling and Institutional racism have become a stigma within the Police service in England and Wales. It was the murder of Stephen Lawrence that actually brought these serious issues to the attention of the nation. Even to this day, Stephen Lawrence’s name echoes throughout the police service, media, politics, courts and the public. Since his death in 1993 the police have since sought forgiveness and tried to amend the error of its ways by putting procedures in place in eradicate institutional racism. However, despite the internal policies and legislations put in place, statistics continually prove that the heart of racism still beats within the police service. Statistics are the main weapon in demonstrating the Racial Profiling of the police in terms of its decision of who they stop and search. As of 2010 “the total use of stop and search has risen from 818,000 five years ago to 1,142,763” (Travis, 2010) The statistics from research over many years does suggest that the police are selective in terms of the civilians they stop and search.

This essay will be Looking at why the Police appear to Racially Profile in the name of Stop and Search
look at how legislation allows the police to continue to polarise and target individuals based on Ethnicity, Race, Colour, Religion and Gender. It will look at where the inconsistencies lie and where the contradictions are within our legislations that focus on Stop and Searches. Chapter 2 will focus mainly on the definition and origin of the terms Racial Profiling and Institutional racism. Chapter 3 will explain Stop and Search which is considered a very controversial piece of legislation which many argue allows the police to make decisions based on race, colour. Chapter 4 will focus on the subjectivity of the legislation by its vague definitions. It will argue the dangers of this that lead to racial discrimination and the damage it has on a secular society. Chapter 5 will focus on the priorities of legislation by looking at Human Rights again Stop and Check. Lastly chapter 6 will look at the many difficulties the police face to do their jobs effectively.


Racial Profiling and Institutional Racism


Racial Profiling “refers to police interventions that depend on the race, ethnicity or national origin, rather than the actual behaviour of an individual, or on verifiable information that leads the police to a particular individual who has been identified as having been engaged in criminal activity.” (McLaughlin and Muncie, 2006: p332) However, the police service has often been criticized not only by the national media but also by academics for this alleged attitude towards policing. The attention that it has raised is for its prejudicial behaviour towards communities throughout England and Wales based on such qualities as Race, Ethnicity, religion and gender. Many argue that race cannot be a reasonable factor in which to judge a person, not just in terms of criminality but in every aspect of a person’s life. The same can be said for a person’s ethnicity, religion and gender. All of which are very socially tender topics that most people don’t talk about, and the fact that our police service are making decisions influenced by these aspects of a person is very concerning. It is human nature to stereotype and label people, it makes it easier to understand people as a collective, but it is important to remember that everybody is unique and different as well. This is why society may find it alarming that our police force is making subjective stereotypical decisions rather than rational and objective decisions. However, many would counter to say that “police officers must make many discretionary decisions in the course of a working day” (McLaughlin and Muncie, 2006: p332) statistically it is impossible to make the correct decision every time, although many would argue what the correct decision actually is. But the police need to be able to make good decisions based in knowledge and evidence rather than a hunch or a belief that a certain minority partake in particular criminal activities because of their colour, religion, race or gender. However it would be ignorant to dismiss that “the service contains a few racists because it represents the population as a whole.” (McLaughlin and Muncie, 2006: p1) so does Racial Profiling actually achieve results or just alienate ethnic minorities and lower class communities?
The murder of Stephen Lawrence raised the awareness and placed a giant metaphorical magnifying glass over the entire police force of the country. It was the police inefficiency to deal with this case seriously that led to the birth of the phrase “Institutional Racism”. Marlow and Loveday (2008) explain that “Institutional racism” applies to all organisations, but it is the police service that will be subject to the sharpest scrutiny, for its failings have been mercilessly exposed and the consequences of discrimination in policing are particularly malicious. Although institutional racism “may be a broad term complicated by other social forces, but it is one that refers to corporate outputs rather than individual feelings.” (Marlow and Loveday, 2008, p1) The murder of Lawrence has cast a dark shadow on a part of the history of the police service in which it has constantly tried to rectify. “The police service, and indeed other public services are still coming to terms with its implications.” (Marlow and Loveday, 2008, p1).


Stop and Search: Friend or Foe?

Stop and Search has been described by Peter Kennison (cited in After Macpherson, 2008) as the “litmus test” of equality in policing. Stop and Search are “exercised under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.” (Marlow & Loveday, 2008, p61) “Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) which allows an officer who has reasonable grounds for suspicion to stop and search a person or vehicle to look for stolen or prohibited items. (Newburn, Criminology: p786) In fact power to stop and search individual’s lies in a multitude of different pieces of government legislation. The Metropolitan Police Service (2012)states that the police have the legal right to stop members of the public and search them for a variety of reasons and using a number of powers, including, Section 60 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, giving police the right to search people in a defined area at a specific time when they believe, with good reason, that: there is the possibility of serious violence; or that a person is carrying a dangerous object or offensive weapon; or that an incident involving serious violence has taken place and a dangerous instrument or offensive weapon used in the incident is being carried out in the locality. This law has to be authorized by a senior officer and is used mainly to tackle football hooliganism and gang fights. They continue by adding “The use of stop and search powers allow the police to tackle crime and anti-social behavior, and to prevent more serious crimes occurring.” (Metropolitan Police, 2012) and lastly “Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 which allows an officer to stop and search persons and vehicles – at a time and place where an appropriate authorization exists – to look for articles that could be used in connection with terrorism whether or not there are reasonable grounds to suspect the presence of such articles.” (Newburn, 2009: p786) The code of Practice says that: “Where an officer has reasonable grounds for suspicion necessary to exercise the power of stop and search he may detain the person concerned for the purpose of and with a view to searching him. There is no power to stop or detain a person against his will in order to find grounds for a search.” (Codes of practice, 1985, cited in being realistic about stop and search) It is argued profusely that “the very existence of section 60 should be critically reviewed and, if it is found to be necessary, increased safeguards and strict criteria should be put in place, including judicial authorization, before the power can be mobilized.” (Townsend, 2012) These legislations are born from a belief to do the right thing and protect the public, however what is written and what is being practiced are two completely different things.


Subjective Legislation

The largest critique of Stop and search emerges from its subjective legislation, predominantly, the term “good reason”. What are the concepts that define good reason? Does the colour of somebody skin define good reason? Or does the God people choose to worship provide a rational decision to stop and search somebody?

“A person’s colour itself can never be reasonable grounds for suspicion. The mere fact alone that a person is carrying a particular kind of property or is dressed in a certain way or has a certain hairstyle is likewise not in itself sufficient.” (Codes of practice, 1985: cited in being real about stop and search)

There is recent evidence to suggest that this piece of advice is not being adhered to. In fact it can be argued that this advice is actually being used to target individuals for a stop and search by the colour of their skin, to the clothes they wear. Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System (1998) show that black people are five times more likely to be stopped and searched more than whites. Moreover, young people, the unemployed and the socially excluded citizens of England and Wales already feel an uneasy suspicion of the police and their motives. The excessiveness of the stop and search towards ethnic communities and various sub-cultures has led to the alienation and marginalisation of minority and ethnic communities. Culminating them losing faith and respect for the service that has been created to protect them, but has actually led them to feel stereotyped and victimized. What the police have failed to realise yet is that “Stereotypical focussing leads to low yields of information for the police because it alienates the very people it who possess information about crime.” (Marlow and Loveday, 2008, p63) It could be argued that it’s these prejudicial decisions and actions by the police that drive a wedge between the trust of ethnic communities and the police.
Another worrying phrase very similar in terms of its ambiguous definition is “reasonable suspicion” it’s a very subjective term which often relies on discretion which that could be viewed a multitude of ways. Civil Libertarians would say that “reasonable suspicion” was too imprecise but would feel that sufficient grounds for stop and search could be seen as fair as one could not be searched without a valid reason which the officer would need to express before carrying out the operation. So effectively one could not be detained until the officer had found something in which to justify the search which sparked the suspicion. It has often been viewed as a tool employed by the police of England and Wales to bastardize the Stop and Search legislation and to manipulate its definitions to utilize radical racist attitudes against members of the public. It is the Stop and Search policy that has shed more light on the continuation of discriminatory attitudes towards targeting ethnic minorities and those belonging to lower socio-economic lifestyles.
The police generally feel that stop and search is an essential element to their work in the fight against crime. Conversely, civil libertarians ponder the real effectiveness of these powers given to the police, allowing a constable on the street to confront, question and basically interrogate a citizen before deciding if they would be detained, arrested or even prosecuted. This idea that anybody can randomly be stopped for no apparent reason can be viewed by some as an infringement of their civil liberties and freedoms. To be stopped for no reason is wrong. However it could be argued that if you have nothing to hide, what’s the big deal? Where’s the problem? Perhaps the way in which the procedure is carried out is what makes a person feel singled out or victimized? In our legal system the main philosophy is that one is “Innocent until proven guilty”, however it is often viewed by some that stop and search are operated in a manner of the opposite ethos, making the victim of stop and search guilty until proven innocent.


Stop and Search vs. Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Many believe that stop and search is an infringement of their human rights. “Equality and Human Rights Commission, believes the use of “section 60″ stop and search is unlawful.” (Dodd, 2012) This leads to another issue. Which has most authority? Which has the highest priority to law? Human Rights are a universal declaration, is this more important? Or do our national laws and legislations have more importance and concern of our police force? Drake et al, (2010) point out that the major problem is that many articles of Human Rights are often violated by governments and legislation around the world. Some argue that violations are not always intentional but are the product of human, industrial, world trade, government debt, or transitions of democracy and social advancement. An example Human Rights states in “Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it is independent, trust, non-self-governing, or under any limitation of sovereignty. (Drake et al, 2010, p217) Bearing in mind the statistics that do argue police racially stereotype, it does give evidence that our laws contradict those of Human Rights. This adds more fuel to the fire of confusion. The people who are subjected to stop and searched feel that their basic human rights are being breached, conversely the police feel that there is nothing wrong with what they’re doing, and after all it is their job. Who is right? It’s hard to tell, the pendulum of moral ambiguity swings both ways with much force and velocity giving credence to both the Stop and Search legislations and the Human Rights articles.


A Bobby’s Perspective

It is important to try to see these issues from a police perspective. There is an overwhelming amount of pressure resting on the shoulders of the force. Met police commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, insists “the definition of a successful stop and search is one that results in an arrest. Arrest rates from all stop and searches carried out to increase from the current rate of 6% to 20%. (McSherry and Craig, 2012) That definition is flawed. There is already enough pressure on the police to get serious results, but is that pressure too much? Is that what’s leading our officers to make lazy, stereotypical decisions on stop and checks? Arrest rates? It’s these arbitrary rules that add pressure to the job which many feel could be the reason for targeting ethnic minorities, causing those particular communities to be over-populated in the statistics. It could be argued that the stress caused to meet targets means that interpreting a piece of legislation and bending it to meet their needs is the problem. “Complaints against police should also be removed as an indicator of performance, in doing so this would allow for a more transparent and honest reporting system.” (Kennison, 2000, p69) This prevents the pressure of number crunching to achieve a desired number to meet expectations. It seems as if the government put these figures in place and if no criminal activity is taking place, the police are having to resort to finding uninformed ways to not only increase the number of offenses but also finding ways to criminalize individuals.
During the Lawrence Inquiry one senior detective appeared not to recognise “a basic tenet of criminal law” relating to reasonable grounds for suspicion. (Macpherson, 1999: pp 107-108) This demonstrated that the legislation is not as easy as it looks and can appear to be rather complex. Moreover, it could be argued that a lack of training and practical understanding could be part of the answer to the high volume of civil actions being made annually by displeased accusers.



In conclusion, Stop and Search has the potential to be a very effective tool for the police in order to combat crime. It has taken a very long time for the police to realize that to be more effective they need to work with the public, especially in poorer communities to establish a high level of trust and common ground. What the police will receive from this level of trust will be invaluable to their knowledge of street, drugs, gun and gang related crimes throughout England and Wales. Craig Mackay has made the first positive step towards the police making more rational decisions in relation to stop and search. He wrote “permission has now been granted for a Judicial Review of the power, based on its incompatibility with the Human Rights Act. The date set for the next hearing is in October 2011. The case that has led to this action is based in London and I am working with colleagues from the MPS to ensure that the challenge is appropriately addressed. However, it is clear that the Review will examine the use of the power nationally. At this time, however, the legislation is still in force and is still available for use in line with the guidance previously issued.” (Mackay, 2012) Of course nothing is set in stone and no promises have been made. But the police are beginning to acknowledge that their way of policing is not as effective as it could be. The Metropolitan Police website states “You should not be stopped just because of your age, race, ethnic background, nationality, faith, the language you speak or because you have committed a crime in the past.” (Metropolitan Police Service, 2012) If the police simply adhere to this rule, in which they have created, then maybe, ethnic minorities will not be over-represented statistically and will not give the impression of racial prejudice from the police among the proud multicultural societies that help make up England and Wales.



Dodd, V. (2012). Metropolitan police to scale back stop and search operation. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jan/12/met-police-stop-search-suspicion?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487. Last accessed 20th Feb 2012.
Drake, D. & Muncie, J. & Westmarland, L. (2010) Criminal Justice: Local and Global. Devon. Willan Publishing.
HMSO (1998). Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System. London. Home Office.
Kennison, P. (2000). Being realistic about Stop and Search. In: Marlow, A. and Loveday,B. After Macpherson. Dorset: Russell House Publishing. 61-73.
Marlow, A. & Loveday, B. (2008). After Macpherson. Dorset: Russell House Publishing.
Mackay, C. (2012). Craig Mackey’s letter to chief constables in full. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2012/jan/12/craig-mackey-letter-chief-constables?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487. Last accessed 20th Feb 2012
McLaughlin, E. & Muncie, J. (2006). The Sage Dictionary of Criminology. London: Sage.
Macpherson, Sir W. (1999) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. London: HMSO.
McSherry, S. & Craig, K. (2012). Stop and search reform must look at efficacy. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2012/jan/17/stop-search-reform-efficacy?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487. Last accessed 20th Feb 2012
Metropolitan Police Service. (2012). Stop and Search. Available: http://www.met.police.uk/stopandsearch/what_is.htm#stopsearch. Last accessed 18th March 2012.
Newburn, T. (2009) Criminology. Willan Publishing. London.
Townsend, M. (2012). Stop and Search “Racial Profiling” by police on the increase, claims study. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2012/jan/14/stop-search-racial-profiling-police. Last accessed 20th Feb 2012.
Travis, A. (2010). 70% rise in number of black and Asian people stopped and searched. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2010/jun/17/stop-and-search-police?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487. Last accessed 20th Feb 2012.


One thought on “Judging A Book By Its Cover: Racial Profiling And The Police In England And Wales

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s