OPINION - As a former policeman, this Public Order Bill spells trouble

Former Met office Leroy Logan  (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Former Met office Leroy Logan (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

I am no stranger to the realities of racism within the police force – I served in it for thirty years. So, although disappointed, I wasn’t surprised to see the latest stats showing that Black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. Stops are going up, and arrests remain very low.

Stop and search is an unevidenced, ineffective practice which puts thousands of people a year in potentially harmful interactions with the police, and erodes trust in public institutions. I’m even more disappointed that rather than finding better alternatives, this policy is being expanded further, branching out into protests through new Government proposals. This will discourage many people from standing up for what they believe in, and it’ll have an even greater effect on people of colour on whom these tactics fall hardest.

The experience of being stopped and searched is a mentally and physically traumatising one, and for some people, it is already a frequent, even daily, reality. Rather than rolling back stop and search powers, the Government wants to introduce them in a protest context through the Public Order Bill, which includes the power for the police to stop and search people without suspicion.

Although the House of Lords have resolutely opposed this measure and voted it out of the Bill, there is still the possibility that MPs may vote to reintroduce it. Introducing these powers will make it unsafe for people in already overpoliced communities to exercise their right to protest, for fear of further intimidation and arrest. What this means in the long term is that people may be prevented from speaking out – limiting the ability for free expression - including the people for whom change is most urgently needed.

The Home Office itself concedes that the extension of stop and search powers “may disproportionally impact Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people,” and that they may further erode certain communities’ trust in the police. My question then is: Why is the Government so set on repeating its past mistakes?

Throughout my career, I have spoken out – often at great personal cost – against the hostile occupational culture within the police force that aids and abets injustices around race and wider equity issues. In the 1990s I gave written and oral evidence to the historic Macpherson Inquiry that named the existence of institutional racism within the police. Following the killing of George Floyd in the US, I took part in a Black Lives Matter protest in London in 2020.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with millions of people across the country, I demanded meaningful change and a more equitable society – not only for myself, but for my grandchildren and for future generations of young people growing up in the UK.

It is this potential for change that the Government continues to attack through its new Public Order Bill. It will create new suspicion-based and suspicion-less stop and search powers, empowering the police to stop and search people they think may commit a protest-related offence, or anyone carrying protest-related objects, like fliers, bike locks or tubes of glue. This could be for something as little as carrying a banner.

I’ve policed at many protests in my time, and not once have I seen a protest without some very witty and cutting banners, and quite often they’ve had a real impact in bringing issues to life. These powers would effectively shut down a protest, and their effectiveness, before it can even get started.

It’s not just new stop and search powers. Protest banning orders could see people who have never been convicted of a criminal offence be prohibited from protesting. Again, although the Lords have voted this measure out of the Bill, they could be re-inserted by MPs.

It’s important that people understand that these measures will not stop people protesting for causes they deeply believe in, but will make protest unsafe for people from marginalised and vulnerable communities.

You cannot stop and search or arrest your way out of the problem of disruptive protest. Expanding police powers like stop and search will only push people to more extreme tactics to achieve their goals, which has the potential of eroding law and order in the longer term.

Protest is the voice of the voiceless. In the last few years alone we’ve seen just how important it is that people can take to the streets, to demand racial justice, march for action against climate change, campaign for women’s rights, or sound the alarm on the cost-of-living crisis. The Public Order Bill threatens to silence communities for whom protest is one of the most vital ways of speaking out.

The measures in the Public Order Bill are once again an over expansion of police powers being introduced at a time when trust between the police and the public is at an all time low, which has been recognised by the Commissioner of the Met Police Mark Rowley in his police reform plan. Instead of sowing division, clamping down on dissent and hiding from accountability, this Government should be safeguarding our right to protest and expression. A more just and fairer society hangs in the balance. Or else police will be seen more as predators than protectors.

Leroy Logan is a retired senior police officer