Police accused of
By John HowardSUFFOLK police have been accused of being racist after figures showed people from black and ethnic minority communities were far more likely to be stopped and searched by officers in some parts of the county than white people.
By John Howard
SUFFOLK police have been accused of being racist after figures showed people from black and ethnic minority communities were far more likely to be stopped and searched by officers in some parts of the county than white people.
But Suffolk Chief Constable Alastair McWhirter said the police's stop and search powers were supported by the whole community as tools in the fight against drug dealers and street criminals.
Latest figures showed in the southern area of Suffolk – which includes the Ipswich, Sudbury, Hadleigh and Capel areas – people from black and ethnic minority communities were more than eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, based on 1991 census data.
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The statistics covered a period from April 1 last year to the end of February this year, and were revealed after the Suffolk Police Authority called for an in-depth report explaining the levels of stop and search in the county.
But the figures for Suffolk as a whole and for the eastern and western areas – which cover communities including Felixstowe, Lowestoft, Halesworth, Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds – were better.
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However, Hamil Clarke, chairman of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality, believed Suffolk police were guilty of institutional racism, along with other forces.
Mr Clarke, a former Mayor of Ipswich, felt grassroots officers needed better quality training, listening to the people they policed.
"There is too much stereotyping and institutional racism, not just in the Metropolitan Police, but the whole police force. I think it's universal throughout the country, in some places more than others. In Suffolk Constabulary and other forces, institutional racism is still there," he said.
"There is a lot of stereotyping still in police forces. If they see a chap with dreadlocks, they automatically assume he is up to no good and that breeds bad feeling."
Mr Clarke said there were good relationships between leaders of communities and Suffolk police, but added: "My concern is whether the messages are going beyond senior management, whether it is getting down to grassroots Pcs on the ground. I suspect probably not. It is frustrating for people to be stopped."
Christine Laverock, chairman of Suffolk Police Authority, said all officers were put through community and race relations training, and members of the ethnic minorities in the county were involved in delivering that training.
"What happens nationally influences people's views of the police. If something happens to a black person in London, it affects the perceptions of a black person in Suffolk," she added.
"There are always occasions where things are not handled in the best way. If one officer stops a disproportionate number of people from an ethnic background, that is tracked to see if that is appropriate, whether there is intelligence about the individual or whether the officer is focusing his or her attention more on a particular ethnic group."
Mrs Laverock said there was an extremely strong commitment from the force, including senior managers and the police authority, to make sure officers did not behave in a way that might be seen as racist.
But she added officers did need to feel that if they suspected someone from an ethnic background of committing a crime, they could deal with the matter.
Mr McWhirter said there were concerns at using out-of-date resident data from 1991 and pointed out that analysing data based on 2001 census population figures had showed for the same period the southern area showed black and ethnic minority people were four times more likely to be stopped.
He added stop and search powers, correctly used, were a valuable tool in the fight against certain types of crime, with research showing all sections of the community supported its use against street crime and drug dealers.
Mr McWhirter said from April 1 to December 31 last year there were 106 searches of 86 black people or people from ethnic minorities in the southern area.
Just eight were searched on more than one occasion and all had previous convictions and were the subject of recent criminal intelligence, while two people searched on seven occasions were active criminals.
Mr McWhirter added there was anecdotal evidence suggesting stop and searches of white people might be under-recorded, whereas officers ensured searches of people from black and ethnic minorities were always recorded because there was a belief they would be subject to greater scrutiny.
"The challenge remains to ensure that it is used in such a way that it is seen to be fair to all. The constabulary will guard against complacency and continue to monitor stop search closely," he said.
A spokeswoman for the Suffolk Police Federation, declined to comment on the figures.
A report by Mr McWhirter on the use of stop and search powers will be considered by Suffolk Police Authority on Friday, which is being asked to endorse the force's approach.