'I still don't know why I was stopped': racial profiling has to end

Dawn Butler
·5-min read

After going public with my story about being stopped by the police on Sunday, for which I believe I was racially profiled, the last thing I expected was the conspiracy theories that have followed.

Since telling my story I have received literally hundreds of abusive messages, while I have seen many accusations on social media that I have somehow lied or made things up.

The truth is, all this does is highlight yet again the desperate lengths some people will go to to deny the lived experience of a black woman and try to disprove that racism exists. This denial is prevalent throughout society and exists at all levels of institutions too.

Related: Labour MP Dawn Butler stopped by police in London

I would not usually comment on social media posts, made largely by anonymous, far-right racist accounts, but this issue is just so important that I feel the need to set the record straight. Some of the things people are saying online are nonsensical.

My friend, who was driving the car when we were stopped, is black. He is not mixed heritage, or even white as many rightwing trolls are saying online – he is a black male. Nor has the footage that I recorded been “flipped” – I was using my front-facing phone camera.

This has not stopped an onslaught of messages calling me a liar. But even if my friend were white, which he’s not, it still would not account for why the police stopped us.

The police told me that when they used their automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) system, the car mistakenly came back as registered to North Yorkshire. This makes me wonder why they chose to stop us, as if we wouldn’t be allowed to travel to London from Yorkshire.

If it were instead a white man driving in London with a car registered to Yorkshire, I believe he would be extremely unlikely to be stopped. So, the fundamental question here is, why were we stopped for driving around Hackney on a sunny Sunday afternoon?

The police admitted they did not exercise their powers based on any intelligence or reasonable suspicion (unless being from North Yorkshire is now suddenly deemed suspicious). Therefore, my only conclusion is that it was due to racial profiling.

This does not happen by accident. I have witnessed enough racism throughout my life to know that it is based on inherent and learned bias, stereotyping and false assumptions.

In this particular case, I am sure that there was confirmatory bias at work; officers saw two black people driving a fairly nice car and thought this equalled criminal activity.

It was on Saturday that I publicly called for the Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick to resign. I know enough from her past statements to know that she does not recognise institutional racism, nor does she show any solidarity with those who suffer from it. It took only one day for her police force to prove my point once again. Something really needs to change.

The incident on Sunday was upsetting; I was being second-guessed and asked where I was going in the city that I’ve lived in all my life. But I know that what happened to me is, sadly, a regular experience for people of colour.

When it comes to being pulled over by police on the road, despite the fact it is used around 5.5 million times a year, Section 163 stops are not subject to basic safeguards such as reporting requirements. We need to know how many people stopped were racially profiled and what the reasons were for being stopped.

I also want the Met police to realise that by behaving like this they are not making society any safer. They are instead alienating a group of people who are already over-policed, and causing even more animosity and division.

When it comes to stop and search, the facts are clear. Statistics show that black people are 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. Between 2010 and 2018, only 15% of people stopped and searched were arrested. That means the police are using a bad system that has only a 15% success rate. In no other line of work would this happen.

Related: Traffic stops should face same scrutiny as stop and search

So, clearly, stop and search is not only being used in a discriminatory manner, it is also massively ineffective.

By speaking out about what happened to me, I am determined to move the dial and change this damaging method of policing, which has existed for many years and is generational. I want to urgently sit down with the police, along with organisations such as Stopwatch, Liberty, Amnesty, the Runnymede Trust and other campaigners who have been working towards make policing better, fairer and more just.

By doing this I hope we can bring about an improved system that results in better outcomes and prevents what happened to me from happening to others. Only then will we begin to eradicate structural racism in the police and bring about positive change for all.

This institutional racism towards people of colour has been going on for many years – now it’s time to put all the people in a room together and make the change happen.

• Dawn Butler is the Labour MP for Brent Central