Theresa May is right to tackle stop-and-search. It's done enough harm already | Diane Abbott

The abuse of stop-and-search powers goes to the heart of bad police-community relationships in Britain's inner cities

Theresa May needs to be given some credit for her announcement this week which, after an unedifying struggle with Downing Street, makes progress – however incremental – on the vexed issue of stop-and-search. No single issue has done more to poison relationships between young people in inner cities and the police. Unless you have a young male family member who is repeatedly stopped and searched, it is difficult to appreciate the bitterness it causes.

Stop-and-search is all too easily done on the basis of racial profiling. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported that in some areas black people were 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched. Overall, black people were six times as likely as white people to be stopped. Worryingly, the most recent EHRC inspection pointed out that more than a quarter of the million or so stops carried out under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in 2013 could have been illegal.

Concern over disproportionate and non-evidence-based use of stop-and-search is not new; it goes back decades. It was stop-and-search that triggered the 1981 Brixton riots, the first major urban riots in Britain for more than a century.

Nor is non-evidence-based stop-and-search an effective crime fighting tool. Since 2012, the Metropolitan police have reduced the number of no-suspicion stop-and-search by 90%. But in the same period stabbings in London have fallen by a third, shootings by 40%, and complaints against the Met have gone down and the arrest ratio has improved.

The striking thing is that some policemen, and their apologists, remain so invested in non-evidence-based stop-and-search when they know that only 9% of such stops result in arrests (mostly for small amounts of cannabis), and they also know how damaging it is for police-community relationships.

Of course the home secretary's reforms, which are a mixture of improved training, increased transparency and a new code, do not go far enough. And the Metropolitan police efforts, though commendable, must go further. Ultimately the law needs to be changed. Increasingly there is debate in the community as to why the police need the power to stop and search on the basis of zero evidence at all.

Its misuse is not just an issue for the UK. Reform of stop-and-search (or stop-and-frisk as it is called in the US) was central to Bill de Blasio's successful 2013 campaign for New York mayor. Terrified of the "law and order" lobby, the other candidates in the Democratic primary refused to touch the issue. De Blasio took it head-on and reaped an electoral dividend. It even featured in his extremely successful TV ad narrated by his personable mixed-race son Dante.

Abuse of stop-and-search powers goes to the heart of bad police-community relationships in Britain's inner cities. Mirroring New York, no doubt it will form part of the debate around the 2016 London mayoral campaign. It is not going to disappear as an issue and, until there is far-reaching reform, it does not deserve to.


Diane Abbott

The GuardianTramp

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