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Home Office, EHRC rap top cop knuckles

Over-enthusiastic plodding alienates public

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The age-old dilemma of whether the police need more powers in order to carry out their job effectively was back in the public arena this week.

First, there was the publication of advice to police chiefs by Home Office Minister David Hanson warning in no uncertain terms that police over-enthusiasm to use Terror laws to clamp down on photography was counter-productive and undermining the War on Terror. On Monday, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its report into recent police "stops", accusing several police forces of getting it wrong and disproportionately targeting members of black and Asian minorities.

While these two issues are not directly connected, the underlying issue is much the same. Do police help their cause by being heavy-handed and potentially alienating large swathes of the public? Or is a softer, gentler form of policing likely to pay dividends in the long run?

Let’s start with the Home Office advice. Back in August last year, David Hanson read the riot act to chief constables. He wrote: "Section 44 [of the Terrorism Act 2000] cannot be used to prohibit the taking of photographs in public places nor make members of the public delete images that have been taken. The possible misuse of section 44 powers in this way is having a damaging effect on the credibility of our counter-terror legislation and we must do everything we can to ensure it is stopped."

He added out that s58A cannot be used in this fashion either, and asked police chiefs to ensure that existing guidance is cascaded to all officers on the street.

We know this now, because a copy of Hanson’s letter – plus the new guidance – was placed in the House of Commons library last week. Observers of police tactics had already guessed that something of this kind had been put out, as last autumn, various highly-placed coppers, including John Yates, an assistant commissioner at the Met, and Chief Constable Andy Trotter both issued warnings to the rank and file along these lines.

This advice from the Home Office meshes neatly with the recent report by the EHRC that concludes that "a number of forces are using the tactics in a way that is disproportionate and possibly discriminatory".

The EHRC has upped the ante, suggesting that it may be prepared to take legal action against the worst offending police forces. Targets for such action are likely to include Dorset, Hampshire, Leicestershire and Wandsworth.

Of course, we have been here before. In the aftermath of the Brixton riots in the early 80s, Lord Scarman reported that a major factor contributing to racial alienation – and therefore acting as catalyst to the riots – was the discriminatory use of "sus laws". These powers, part of the Vagrancy Act 1824, enabled police to stop and search individuals "on suspicion", and were repealed in 1981.

There have been concerns that anti-Terror laws would be used in a similar way. However, the racial mix of individuals stopped under counter-Terror legislation appears to be more or less in line (pdf) with the racial mix in the UK as a whole – prompting some cynics to suggest an unofficial policy within the police to top up their stats by stopping individuals of non-minority ethnicity in order to make the figures look better.

The current headline figure for police "stops" is derived mostly from stops carried out under PACE.

Critics have argued that the police would be better served by a more selective use of the powers they already have, but politicians from both major parties have taken a tougher line. Back in 2008, the BBC reported that Gordon Brown was planning to give police the power to stop and search people without giving a reason.

Meanwhile, David Cameron was expressing support for measures that would allow police sergeants to authorise the use of stop and search of pedestrians and vehicles in a specific area for up to six hours - or 48 hours if permission is granted by a senior officer. ®

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