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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