The ethnicity of drivers stopped by police – and the reason for the stop – should be routinely recorded, campaigners and lawyers have said, after a Labour MP was pulled over by officers.
Dawn Butler, the former shadow equalities minister, accused the police of being institutionally racist after the car she was being driven in by her black friend was pulled over in Hackney, east London.
Traffic stops have come under increased scrutiny since another high-profile incident last month in which the British athlete Bianca Williams was stopped and handcuffed by police alongside her partner while her baby son was in the car.
Unlike the laws governing the police’s ability to stop and search individuals on the street, officers have the power to stop drivers without reasonable suspicion that they have done something wrong under section 163 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.
Traffic stops, which can lead to searches of vehicles and passengers, are not routinely recorded, so there is no police data on why the power is used and who it is used against.
The current law governing stop and search, however, is contained in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984, which says an officer requires “reasonable grounds for suspecting” someone before they can use their powers. Officers must also make a written record of the details of the stop and search.
Police can stop someone without reasonable grounds when a section 60 order is in place in a particular area. Police are supposed to authorise such an order only when there has been serious violence or where there is a risk that it may occur.
Rosalind Comyn, policy and campaigns officer for the human rights campaign group Liberty, said: “It’s unacceptable that traffic stops don’t get the same scrutiny as any other kind of police stop-and-search power. It’s estimated that traffic stops are the most used police power, and yet there is no record of how often this power is used, why, or – crucially – who against.
“People’s experiences of police stops are the same whether they are on the street or in their car, and we know black people are almost 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people in the street.”
“It’s important that we start to record traffic stops because we can highlight the disparity and have an empirical discussion of where some of the high points are or some of the officers who are doing this,” said Katrina Ffrench, chief executive of the charity StopWatch, which campaigns for fair and effective policing.
“We can recommend training or ensure that there are sanctions for disproportionate behaviour. But I can’t really see how we find a viable, practical solution whilst we’re not tracking the problem.”
Stafford Scott, a campaigner for racial equality, said: “Police officers are not required to register those stops. So we can’t tell how many have been conducted out there, what they have been stopped for, or the ethnicity of the people who have been stopped. So again when it comes to policing, whenever police officers are allowed to use their discretion, black people are in trouble.”
Scott echoed Butler’s call for the Met police commissioner, Cressida Dick, to resign over what she said was a failure to acknowledge institutional racism in the force. Dick has defended her force’s use of stop-and-search powers, saying black people were more likely to be victims as well as perpetrators of violent crime in the capital.
Last month, it emerged that the Metropolitan police stopped and searched 1,418 people under section 60. In May 2020, more than double the number were stopped than in May 2019.
Officers said they stopped the vehicle Butler was travelling in as they thought it was registered in North Yorkshire. They later said they had entered the registration number in to the system incorrectly and apologised. However, they did not explain why it would be justified to stop a vehicle registered elsewhere.
Rachel Harger, a solicitor at Bindmans, who works in the law firm’s actions against police and state department, said: “Given the increase in the use of section 60 powers and disproportionate targeting of black people with these powers, it is unsurprising that many have greeted police accounts of a misrecorded number plate with scepticism.”
Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said the police must act with “fairness and equality” following Butler’s traffic stop.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, tweeted that he had approached Butler over Sunday’s incident: “All allegations of racial profiling must be taken extremely seriously by the Metropolitan police,” he said. Starmer also criticised the abuse Butler had received on social media, after the hashtag #sackdawnbutler was trending and tweets were posted suggesting that Butler had lied about the incident.
The Home Office has been approached for comment.