Sunday, October 23, 2005

Stop and Search and Scare

The BBC has been investigating the way the police have been using the anti-terrorism stop and search powers since the attacks of 7th July. In designated "high risk" areas the police have the ability to stop and search any vehicle or person without having to demonstrate reasonable suspicion. Unsurprisingly, a number of police forces have reported significant increases in the use of this power since the London attacks.
Hampshire police stopped more than 4,400 pedestrians and vehicles since 7 July, compared to just under 700 between 2003 and 2004... There were just four searches in Humberside in 2003/4, yet in the last three months, there were 1,830.
Well, I say unsurprising. The scale of these increases is something to behold. I suppose it is understandable to some extent, the police are human just like everyone else after all. From a purely rational standpoint, I'd say it's much harder to justify.

Starting at the beginning, our great leader will undoubtedly say that this rise is because "the rules of the game are changing". There are lots of reasons why I think he's completely wrong about that but here's one directly relating to this. Since September 11th 2001, the British public were constantly told that it was only a matter of time before the UK was targeted by terrorists. Blair would have us believe that his critics didn't believe this but that's mostly just the typical Neo-Labour smoke and mirrors. Most critics did believe that the UK was at risk. The criticism was that Blair was not addressing that threat in a reasonable and competant manner. Critics also thought that Blair was manipulating the risk for political purposes. None of that has changed since the attacks on London. The risk of more attacks is still with us, just as it was before. Blair still stands accused of incompetance and manipulation (I'd say that since the attacks the evidence of that is actually mounting). The "rules of the game" have not changed.

So, why, if an attack was (rightly) thought to be inevitable before the bombings, is it necessary for the police to increase their use of stop and search powers after July 7th? Did they not believe the warnings given previously? Perhaps if they had, the attacks could have been prevented. Right? Well, no, that's just nonsense.

Because, if you think about it, the chances of the police successfully intercepting a terrorist during a random stop and search are slim to non-existent. How many people did Hampshire police stop in three months? It was 4,400. That sounds like a lot but out of how many people in total? How many people entered the "high risk" areas in those three months without being searched? Bear in mind that the "high risk" areas are rather larger than you might reasonably expect. You'd have to count every person who visits Southampton airport for example. In those three months (summer months no less) that would have to be at least 400,000 - 500,000 people. Portsmouth is also part of the Hampshire police region so there's also the Navy base, HMS Victory, the Trafalgar celebrations, the impressive Spinnaker Tower (although to be fair I think the tower has only recently opened), visits from the Queen... That's a whole lot of people coming and going in these "high risk" areas. I think you get the point. 4,400 people stopped and searched out of what, 1,000,000? It's all gone a bit needles and haystacks. In fact, it starts to look utterly pointless.

But what about the visible police presence, surely that must have a positive effect? Many more people will have seen the police performing these duties than just those who have been searched. That should make us all safer, right? Well, I'd say no again. I doubt a determined suicide bomber is going to be greatly detered by the fact that there's a small chance that he could be searched on the way to his target. "Oh, I might be searched, how inconvenient. I'd better just not bother martyring myself for the glory of Allah". Er, no, it's just not a sensible assumption.

So, when it comes to ensuring public safety, random stop and searches really are completely useless. The chances of interception a terrorist are basically nil. The chance that it would deter an attack are equally slim.

The searches do have some effect though. Firstly, they reassure the type of person who demands that something must be seen to be done. Not a hugely useful function, but it's a possible vote winner so it's always going to be a favourite with politicians. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this visible police action does a splendid job of keeping the terrorist threat at the forefront of people's thoughts. Blair likes that, as we know, so he's more than happy to let the police carry on with these silly searches. Because if we're all crapping our pants, it's easier for him to persuade us to accept his stupid new proposals. If we're crapping our pants we might not notice that terrorism is actually one of the minor dangers we face in the modern world. As I mentioned previously, you're actually at considerably greater risk of being killed by a friend or family member. But scared people lose perspective, they accept things they might normally question. It's an unpleasant truth but our government is actively seeking to create such a climate in order to be able to aquire greater powers over the population. It's an Orwellian nightmare. Unfortunately, it's one I don't seem to be able to wake up from. An application for asylum is starting to look tempting. I hear New Zealand is nice.

There's lot's of other stuff I could write about stop and search but this is getting rather long already so I'll leave it there. I would have liked to have seen a breakdown of the racial profile of those being stopped and searched. I suspect that would tell another very bleak story. I might come back to that at some point.

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