Notes From the Frontline: Stopping and Searching

By Matt Delito on at

"We've had a report of a group of six youths fighting with knives in Guy Street Park, descriptions to follow," the familiar voice of the CAD operator crackles on the radio. "We have one IC3 male, around five foot five, wearing a black hoodie and a red baseball cap". The CAD operator is relaying from the 999 call in progress. "We also have an IC3 male, skinny, around six feet tall, wearing a dark track-suit with a large NIKE logo, and an IC1 male wearing jeans and a red sweater. Several knives have been seen. More descriptions to follow."

"Show Bravo Alpha one-zero-one", the skipper transmits on his radio, signifying that we intend to respond to the call. "We're a Blunt serial, one plus two plus six". He has just told the CAD desk that we're the unit tasked to combat knife crime on the borough tonight, and that there's seven of us; an inspector, two sergeants, and four PCs.

"There!" shouts Jim, pointing between two buildings. The carrier screeches to a halt, before the driver throws it in reverse and backs up so we can take another look. Sure enough, there's someone who fits the description: dark track-suit; large Nike logo; dark skin colour, and on a bicycle. He was coming towards us, but as he spots the huge silver Sprinter van with 'Police' written down the side, he abruptly changes directions.

"Out!" shouts the skipper, and four of us pile out of the sliding door at the side of the van, heading into the council estate, as the van screaches off to cut off any escape at the other end of the estate.

As I turn the corner, I'm suddenly faced with him. He's talking to someone over a fence. He looks at me, startled, but he has stopped his bike with the front wheel sticking through a black metal fence, and cannot easily get away. He gets off the bike and starts to walk away from us, quickly.

"Excuse me, mate", I say after him. He keeps walking.

"You! In the tracksuit! Please stop!", I call. He pretends not to hear me.

I start running, and my colleagues follow suit. He doesn't slow down, but he doesn't speed up either, so we easily catch up with him.

"Stand with your arms to your sides", one of the PCs says, as we've surrounded him. "You are being detained for the purpose of a search; we've had some reports of someone fitting your description..." He doesn't get to finish his well-practiced stop-and-search spiel before he is interrupted.

"Fits my description? You mean he's black, yeah?" he shoots back, and moves one of his arms down from his jesus-on-the-cross-like pose on the pavement.

"Don't move, keep your hands out to your sides," the PC says, grabs his arm, and moves it so it points straight out to the side again. I start searching the man.

"What's your name, mate?" I ask him.

"I ain't your mate, but it's Hakeem," he replies smugly.

I continue my search, and the PC continues talking to him.

"Fuck this, man", he says, suddenly, as if he's changed his mind about something. I'm on his left side, and from the corner of my eye, I see his right arm move towards the pocket of his hoodie.

"DON'T MOVE!" the PC shouts. I use Hakeem's arm -- the one I am already holding -- to pull him towards me. He is off balance now, which makes it easy for me and the two officers that are standing closest to drag him to the ground.

"What is wrong with you" Hakeem shouts, "I haven't done nothing!" He is on the pavement, struggling violently with three police officers on top of him. He barely pauses to breathe as he fires of a tirade that would make a soldier blush. Two of us are handcuffing him; I am continuing the search, and the sergeant is standing back, keeping an eye on our surroundings whilst he calls for additional backup on his radio. This particular council estate is none too friendly to police, and he's not taking any risks.

A group of youth, around six or seven strong, comes up to us. "What's this all about? You guys always picking on us, man," the leader of the group says.

"Please stay clear," the sergeant says, before having to repeat himself more loudly in order to be heard over the stream of abuse coming from the man we now have in handcuffs, face-down on the pavement.

"He's clean," I report, as I conclude my search of the man. He only has a wallet on him; no weapons of any kind. I tell him to calm down, as my colleagues help him to his feet, leaving his handcuffs on until we've clarified whether he represents a risk or is wanted by police. He mutters something about only wanting to give us his ID from his pocket.

The rest of our carrier arrives, and as the remaining officers join us, the group that was gathering is taken aside so we can concentrate on talking to the man we had just stopped.

"Why the hell? There was no need to throw me on the ground like that," the man says, as he's struggling against his handcuffs.

"Okay, please listen to me," I'm saying to the wide-eyed, clearly-agitated Hakeem. "I'll explain everything, but you really do need to listen to me, okay?"

I seem to be getting through to him, because his cavalcade of hitherto uninterruptible swearing is ebbing to a trickle of occasional muttered obscenities, before finally drying up entirely. Once he finally shuts up, I continue.

"We had a report of a group of youths fighting with knives, and you fit the description of one of the suspects", I tell him.

"What was that then? Black man?" Hakeem spits with unveiled contempt. To be fair, I probably wouldn't have been very happy to be dragged to the ground by police either, so I decide to take the time to explain everything to him, resolving not to stop talking until he completely understands what just happened. And -- more importantly -- why.

"Well, yes, but also wearing a dark hoodie like yours."

"That fits every one of us", a man from the group standing a few yards further up the road shouts. I'm startled; I had completely forgotten we were performing for an audience. His comment is rewarded with a burst of laughter from his friends. My eyes scan the group. I recognise a few familiar faces. One of them I have arrested before. A couple I recognise from the gang identification charts on the walls in the briefing room at the police station. Others again are unfamiliar to me. My attention switches to their clothing, and I'm unsurprised to find that the man's observation was accurate: every single one of them is wearing dark hoodies -- some with logos on the front, some not.

"The reason we took you to the ground", I say, after I've turned back to Hakeem, "is that we had reports of youth fighting with knives. The description we got for one of them was someone of your height and build, and the description of your clothing fit, down to the logo you've got on your hoodie, there." I say. Hakeem looks down and shrugs.

"When you went for your pocket," I continue, "we couldn't take any chances: We had to assume you were going for your knife, and none of us wanted to get stabbed, so we took you down and put you in handcuffs."

"It wasn't even me, though," he fires back, "this is police brutality, man."

I sigh, and sense a very, very long night of dealing with complaints in my immediate future. I stop for a moment to think as I'm looking at Hakeem. There's something other than hatred shining through his shiny, dark eyes. It's inspiring me to not give up on him. There are sparkles of intelligence, curiosity, and injustice reflected in them. I'm profoundly aware that he only sees me as yet another uniform, and he is attributing me with every bad story he has ever heard about a cop, but something about the way he is looking at me...

"Do you work?", I ask Hakeem.

"What do you mean?" he replies.

"A job. Work. Earning money. Do you work?"

"Yeah, man, I'm an accountant for a commercial laundry firm." He says, his eyes scanning mine for a reaction that never develops.

"What would you do if the phone rang at your office. You pick up, and an anonymous voice tells you that someone with a black hoodie and a red baseball cap was just seen entering your building, and that they had a knife. The next thing you see is that someone with a black hoodie and a red baseball cap enters your office, and aggressively starts talking to one of your co-workers?"

"I'd call the police, wouldn't I?"

"I'm glad you say that", I tell Hakeem. "But what would your assumptions be about this man? Would you be worried if you reached into his pocket?"

"I see what you're doing, blood, but it ain't the same!" he laughs, with no small amount of incredulity in his voice "Nobody ever comes into our office with a knife, are you fucking crazy? We're a laundry, blood, use your brains! We ain't got nothin' worth robbing or nothin'!"

"Ah, but you see‚ the streets are our office, and that phone call I described to you? That's exactly the phone-call we got over our radios. So we're now faced with the situation I told you about: we got a phone-call with a description of a person seen half a mile away from here, and when we turn a corner, we find you, and you fit the description."

"That's bullshit, though, you can't just search me because I fit someone's description -- how do you know it's me? I never carry no fucking knife, man!"

"I understand that, but see it from our perspective," I say, as I'm unlocking the handcuffs from behind his back. He moves his hands to the front of his body, and starts massaging his wrists. "The only way we have to figure out whether it was you, is to search you. If you have a knife on you, we know we can arrest you and figure out whether you were involved with the episode in the park."

"Yeah, I get you," he replies. "Still ain't fair though. I've been searched like eight times this year, man, it ain't fair."

"I know what you're saying, but can you imagine why that's happening?"

"'Cause I'm black, innit?" he says.

"I don't think it is because you're black," I reply. "Have you noticed much police here on the estate this year?" I ask him.

"Yeah, of course. You guys are hard to miss, with your flashing lights and all that," he says, and nods to the police-van parked not ten feet away.

"Do you know why we're here?"

"Yeah, you keep stopping me for no fucking reason, innit?"

"Not you specifically. Do you know why we're stopping anybody at all?"

"Drugs?"

"That's right. This estate is known for the amount of drugs and weapons that are floating about. Quite a few gangs, too. We want to make this place safe for everybody who lives there, but to do that, we have to deal with the drugs and the gangs."

"Yeah. My sister was robbed the other day, man, that ain't right."

"Exactly", I reply. "But we can't do anything about that until we do something about the gangs. To do that, we have to try to remove the drugs and weapons from the area. And to do that, we have to search people. We try to search only people we believe to be gang members, but that leaves us with a problem: gang members don't wear a neon saying 'I'm a gang member'."

"I see what you're saying," Hakeem says.

"What's that?"

"Well, all the gang members are black, innit?" he says, with a lowered voice, keeping his eyes locked on mine, looking for my reaction.

"Well, that's not quite the case -- there are quite a few gang members who are white and asian as well, but yes, many are black."

"And I'm wearing the same clothes as them, so I look dodgy."

"Hakeem, it's not that you look dodgy, but I think you're thinking in the right direction here. The problem we have is that we can't identify a criminal or a gang member. All we have is statistics, but statistics aren't on your side, in this case. This is an area that has a lot of gang members. Many of them are black; most of them are roughly of your age, and wear similar clothes as you."

"That's fucked up, man," he concludes.

"You know, you're right. But the thing is, I haven't got a solution for that. I guess one solution would be to leave everybody in this estate alone, but I doubt that would make things any safer for your sister."

"Man, why don't anybody ever explain all this shit when they search you?" the man says, with the half smile of a man who's just solved a puzzle that has been bothering him for a while.

"Y'know, perhaps we should," I reply.

We do the routine checks on the man, and he comes back Not Wanted by the police. I look around, and it appears that our audience has slinked off as I was talking to Hakeem.

"So are you saying I should wear a suit?" he asks.

"No, you can wear whatever you want, but unfortunately, given who you are and where you live, you might find yourself targeted more often than others."

"That ain't fair though, man", Hakeem says.

It has been months since this episode happened, but Hakeem's words have been ringing in my ears ever since. He is right, it isn't fair, but I'll be damned if I can think of a way to make it better.

Matt Delito is a pseudonym for a policeman working for the Metropolitan Police. All stories from the frontline are not entirely “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” due to the sensitive nature of the business, but are all based on actual events.

If you missed his previous columns on Giz UK, check them out over here.

Image Credit: Police image from Shutterstock.