The futility of terrorism-related stop-and-search

Following yesterday's ruling that Section 44 of the Terrorism Act (2000) is illegal, we examine the impact of stop-and-search in the fight against terrorism.

Andy Hull is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr)

Yesterday the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that the use in the UK of counter-terrorism stop and search powers under Section 44 (s44) of the Terrorist Act 2000 is illegal.

In December 2006, at a public meeting, Andy Hayman, then the Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations, had said:

“It’s a power that’s well intended: it’s there to try and prevent, deter and disrupt terrorist activity. So, the test is: to what extent does it achieve that aim? And I have to say, it doesn’t… There’s a big price to pay for probably a very small benefit.

Following 7/7, in the year from October 2005 to September 2006, the Met conducted 22,672 s44 stop-and-searches in London. Of these, 269 resulted in an arrest being made. Of these arrests, 27 were on suspicion of terrorism-related offences. Of them, 0 were subsequently charged with a terrorism-related offence. That’s a whole lot of grief for almost no reward.

The response was always that s44 is about disruption, not detection: about putting people off, not catching them at it. Disruption, of course, is hard to measure, unless you’re from Special Branch or MI5.

Hayman’s tune, however, changed dramatically after the Haymarket and Glasgow attempted bombings in June 2007. As Chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Terrorism and Allied Matters Committee, he oversaw at that time a huge nationwide escalation in the number of s44 stop-and-searches performed by Britain’s police.

Between October 2008 and September 2009 the Met alone carried out 162,846 such stops and searches, seven times more than in the same period three years earlier.

The Met’s use of s44 stop-and-search has been disproportionately targeted at young Asian males, angering many in the capital’s Asian communities, and undermining their much-needed trust and confidence in the police who are there to serve and protect them. Hayman, now retired, defended this profiling approach last week in The Times.

But targeting young Asian males is fraught with risk. Plenty of suicide bombers and their senders have been white, such as Nicky Reilly, or old, such as Samira Ahmed Jassim, or female, like Muriel Degauque. One of the failed 21/7 London bombers fled the capital dressed as a woman.

And the security and intelligence services know that Al Qaeda is recruiting ‘atypical’ recruits, specifically to get around profiled counter-terrorism measures.

If we are to use section 44 stop and search at all, we cannot defend a policy of target selection which relies on an officer’s discretion, or hunch, because the result is the unwise and unfair bias we have seen to date.

We might make a case for a genuinely random approach – stopping one in every ten people passing through Victoria – but only if we really think the disruptive effect on terrorists outweighs the disruptive effect on commuters, and the invasion of privacy that comes with it.

As for profiling at airports, sure, stop the guy who’s bought a one-way ticket with cash and has no luggage – cue Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Christmas Day 2009 – but, please, let’s not stop him because he has a beard…

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11 Responses to “The futility of terrorism-related stop-and-search”

  1. Tom Miller

    RT @leftfootfwd: The futility of terrorism-related stop-and-search:

  2. Chris Paul

    RT @leftfootfwd: The futility of terrorism-related stop-and-search:

  3. Chris Paul

    RT @leftfootfwd futility of terrorism-related stop-&-search: via @tommiller <- how about t-related invasion & occupation?

  4. David T

    For once, I agree with Andy Hull.

    Intelligent profiling has its place: but it needs to look at multiple factors which go beyond the visible. Merely stopping people because “they look a bit suspicious” is pure theatre.

  5. John Byrnes

    We don’t need profiling to identify Individuals like the Christmas-Day Bomber!

    Virtually all media outlets are discussing whether we should be profiling all Arab Muslims; I will in the one-page explain why we don’t need profiling. Over 15 years ago, we at the Center for Aggression Management developed an easily-applied, measurable and culturally-neutral body language and behavior indicators exhibited by people who intend to perpetrate a terrorist act. This unique methodology utilizes proven research from the fields of psychology, medicine and law enforcement which, when joined together, identify clear, easily-used physiologically-based characteristics of individuals who are about to engage in terrorist activities in time to prevent their Moment of Commitment.

    The Problem
    Since the foiled terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national on Northwest Flight 253 to Detroit, the President has repeatedly stated that there has been a systemic failure as he reiterates his commitment to fill this gap in our security. This incident, like the Fort Hood shooting, exemplifies why our government must apply every valid preventative approach to identify a potential terrorist.

    The myriad methods to identify a terrorist, whether “no-fly list,” “explosive and weapons detection,” mental illness based approaches, “profiling” or “deception detection” – all continue to fail us. Furthermore, the development of deception detection training at Boston Logan Airport demonstrated that the Israeli methods of interrogation will not work in the United States.

    All media outlets are discussing the need for profiling of Muslim Arabs, but profiling does not work for the following three reasons:

    1. In practice, ethnic profiling tells us that within a certain group of people there is a higher probability for a terrorist; it does not tell us who the next terrorist is!

    2. Ethnic profiling is contrary to the value our society places on diversity and freedom from discrimination based on racial, ethnic, religious, age and/or gender based criteria. If we use profiling it will diminish our position among the majority of affected citizens who support us as a beacon of freedom and liberty.

    3. By narrowing our field of vision, profiling can lead to the consequence of letting terrorists go undetected, because the terrorist may not be part of any known “profile worthy” group – e.g., the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh

    The Solution
    Our unique methodology for screening passengers can easily discern (independently of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, age, and gender) the defining characteristics of human beings who are about to engage in terrorist acts.

    The question is when will our government use true “hostile intent” through the “continuum of aggressive behavior” to identify potential terrorists? Only when observers focus specifically on “aggressive behavior” do the objective and culturally neutral signs of “aggression” clearly stand out, providing the opportunity to prevent these violent encounters. This method will not only make all citizens safer, but will also pass the inevitable test of legal defensibility given probable action by the ACLU.

    As our Government analyzes what went wrong regarding Abdulmatallab’s entrance into the United States, you can be assured that Al Qaeda is also analyzing how their plans went wrong. Who do you think will figure it out first . . . ?

    Visit our blog at where we discuss the shooting at Fort Hood and the attempted terrorist act on Flight 253.

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