Channel 4’s new documentary paints a vivid picture of the police’s systemic mistreatment of black people, argues Jamal Elaheebocus
The Channel 4 documentary The Truth about Police Stop & Search (2021) is a powerful depiction of the way in which the police systematically intimidate and terrorise black people through stop and search.
The documentary, hosted by Jermaine Jenas, followed the experience of 40 black men over 90 days, with many filming their encounters with the police. What follows is a damning inditement of stop and search and the conduct of the police, who frequently stop the people in the programme on dubious or no grounds and then go on to intimidate them and use excessive force and outright violence.
Producer Jasleen Sethi said the following about why they made the documentary:
“We’ve wanted to make a film about the staggering racial disproportionality in Stop and Search rates for several years. I think the events of the last two years have really brought racism, both unconscious and deliberate, into sharp focus and so it felt important to revisit an issue that is affecting so many mainly black men and boys around the country on a daily basis”
“Other great films have been made about Stop and Search in the past, but what we were hoping to do was to focus on the impact that the practice has on individuals and to build a bit of empathy for these experiences in those viewers who may never have had negative experiences with the police, and who may not understand that Stop and Search is far more than just an occasional minor inconvenience in the lives of so many people.”
The first person the programme focuses on is 16-year-old Jamar, who is stopped and arrested along with his other black friends. Jamar supposedly matched the description of a man carrying a samurai sword, but was wearing entirely different clothes to the description of the suspect.
The situation escalated quickly and Jamar then had a taser pressed into his neck and a gun pointed at it.
While this was the most extreme example, there were several other filmed incidents which depicted the same sequence: black men being stopped on very dubious grounds and at times plainly wrong descriptions, intimidated by police and then being subjected to disproportionate force as police claimed they were “obstructing arrest”.
Another man, Tashan, was filmed being stopped while he was on his way to the shops because police believed he was carrying drugs. Police quickly arrested him for obstruction as he tried to protect himself and pinned him on the road, tearing his top off in the process. He was held in a police cell, without being told what he’d been arrested for.
The surveys of the participants showed that these kind of incidents are very commonplace. Over 50% of the participants said they had been stopped 10 times or more, with one person saying he’d been stopped over 50 times since he was 14. 39% had their first stop before they were 18 and 30 out of the 40 people said that the stops had negatively impacted their mental health.
Jasleen Sethi said:
“Hearing one of our contributors tell the story of the first time they were stopped by the police, aged 7 or 8, playing with friends near their home, was shocking. To then realise that being stopped as a very young child was actually quite common amongst our cohort of volunteers, was also a worrying theme”.
The programme also shows that Stop and Search is entirely ineffective. 80% of stops find nothing, not including the many thousands of stops which are not documented by the police.
The other thing that stands out is the police’s total lack of accountability. Many Stop and Search incidents are not recorded by the police and so the figures, that black people are 9 times more likely to be stopped and that 80% of stops come to nothing, are likely underestimating the situation. 18 out of the 40 participants had complained to the police about a stop but just 3 were successful.
This was most shockingly demonstrated by Jamar’s case. His mother tried to get the bodycam footage from the officers who stopped her son. However, Lewisham police had already decided that the officers did not act unlawfully so deleted the footage of the incident, meaning it could not be investigated by the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
The officers had also failed to create a record of the stop or the use of force and their record of the complaint repeatedly got the details of the stop wrong.
In the documentary, TV chaser Shaun Wallace, who is also a barrister, also explains how with judges, “Nine times out of ten, the account of the police officer is generally accepted”.
All of this contributes to a situation where the police are effectively able to decide for themselves whether they acted lawfully and hide cases where they used disproportionate force. It allows the police to stop and search, often without reasonable grounds, use force disproportionately and unnecessarily, all without any consequence.
All of this serves to intimidate, demonise and wear down black and brown people, through the constant cycle of stops, arrests, complaints and lack of action. This is something which the programme portrays so well, where the participants express the emotional damage a stop has caused and then describe how they will have to face it again because they will inevitably be stopped again.
Jasleen Sethi gave her view on what needs to be done:
“There are some great speakers in the film who offer potential solutions. We need a more and truly diverse police force - especially at the top - but as well as that there need to be honest conversations about institutional racism. Children should not have their first experience with police be one that leaves them terrified and criminalised.”
The documentary is a powerful demonstration of the institutional racism and violence inherent in the police, as an arm of the state, and why stop and search must be urgently scrapped.
It is also a reminder of the dangerous power which the police currently have and the way this power is misused. The Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill that the Tories are bringing back to the Commons on 5th July will seek to expand police powers to control protest and reduce accountability even further, and the documentary is a reminder of why we should continue to protest against the bill.
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