No matter what the Police do, someone somewhere is going to be offended, aggrieved, persecuted, upset or discriminated against in some way. In short, we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t, so most of the time we crack on anyway after lots of checks and rechecks to make sure that the action to be taken is proportionate, legal, accountable and necessary. We then take the flack later and deal with it. One of the extremely hot political potatoes of late has been concerning the use of target profiling to identify and deter suspected terrorists or criminals.
My view on the subject is this – if we have an identified threat from a specific group or gang then we should target them with aggressive intelligence gathering, stop checks and arrests in order to disrupt their activities and identify and prosecute where criminal offences have become apparent. This way the vast majority of the public will not be harassed and they will see that we are tackling problems that affect everyone. By making an environment too hostile to operate in, the targets (or potential targets who see a benefit in crime/terrorism) will then move onto a softer option elsewhere. The better result is they hopefully decide that they cannot comfortably work anywhere and that the risk of capture is too high to justify the act, so they quit and do something else instead, like become a politician.
Take for example, a group of criminals using mopeds in order to quickly enter and exit a given area to commit burglaries at specific types of premises. This tactic is by no means new, as most Police pursuits of mopeds will be cancelled if there is an element of danger. You only have to watch Road Wars or Traffic Cops to learn that riding on footpaths, no helmets, lots of pedestrians etc fulfil this criteria, then that particular form of transport becomes desirable for committing crime as you can use the things virtually anywhere.
In order to deter criminals from using mopeds to commit the types of crime that we KNOW they are being used for, we could do one of three things. 1) stop everyone from using mopeds, 2) randomly check any moped rider whether or not we believe that they could be a suspect or 3) target specific riders based on intelligence such as age, clothing, behaviour, time of day or other known elements of their MO (modus operandi or method of operating)
The first option is unfair, disproportionate to the problem and will alienate not only those who do use mopeds and don’t commit crime but those who think it’s unfair to target everyone to eradicate an extremely small minority even though most people will never ride a moped in their life.
The second option is equally unfair and could be considered a complete and utter waste of time as it would appear you are merely stopping people who you don’t suspect to be a target in order to balance the books, they will also generate plenty of responses from innocent parties along the lines of “do I look like a 15 year old burglar?”
The third option is the preferred choice as it gives a higher potential hit rate for stops, it is fair and proportionate to the threat, it also has a higher potential for success as it narrows down the target profile significantly.
I think most will agree that sending police officers out in high visibility jackets and vehicles to randomly stop vehicles and people who they don’t even suspect are related to the crime, in randomly picked areas, is an absurd waste of time. The people and vehicles stopped would be searched and personal details gathered for no reason other than it is believed that random checks have at some point deterred a suspect from committing a crime and it is therefore a valid tactical option.
The Police officers will be well aware that they are doing nothing but filling out forms for forms sake as well as getting on peoples nerves for making them late for work/college/pub needlessly. Even if the senior management maintain that doing random checks on random people could possibly maybe perhaps deter someone from committing burglary in the area, everyone feels that resources would be better used in specifically targeting the actual suspects instead of everyone else.
This is what currently happens with stop searches under Section 44(1 & 2) of the Terrorism Act as we are told “no one knows what a terrorist looks like, they could be anywhere and everywhere so don’t stereotype people and check anyone and everything” The Police officers cannot refuse a lawful order as the legislation is designed to be used to stop anyone and everything in a given (large) area and time frame, so legally there is nothing wrong with the order, as rediculous as the action may be.
During the IRA/RIRA/PIRA campaigns in the 80’s and 90’s, if you were a white male or female in your early to mid 20’s, had an Irish accent and people didn’t recognise you then suspicions would have been raised. If you were in an area where no Irish people lived or gathered then the chances are that you would have been stopped and searched. When I was a kid we used to have TV broadcasts on the BFBS (British forces Broadcasting Service) telling everyone to look out for exactly that profile and to report them to the Royal Military Police, because that is where the threat came from at the time. If you were black, Chinese, Asian, Fijian or Arabic, not many people would have suspected you of being a member of the IRA, again because people from those ethnic groups were not at the time considered to be involved in the threat.
Searches under the ‘Sus’ Laws and later S.1 of PACE still happened because they could however I very much doubt that anyone of those ethnic groups would have been told that they were being searched because the Police officer thought that they were members or supporters of the IRA, unless the police officer was conducting a questionable search and used that as an excuse for it.
In the UK the current threat from Al Qaeda and affiliated groups is real, there are literally thousands of known or suspected members or supporters. On the news a few weeks ago Sir Ian Blair stated that several credible plots have been stopped and hundreds of cells are being tracked by the security services which is causing a nightmare for resourcing personnel. Using all of the current intelligence, the Security services are able to build up a profile based on background, beliefs, hobbies, friends, activities, web browsing, habits etc which give indications as to whether or not a person who fits that specific profile is deemed a threat and worth investigating.
Profiling has been used extensively by countries such as Israel on their national airline El Al. Along with increased security such as covert and overt air marshals, it has been used to good effect. They use profiling at borders and stop checks and have stopped attacks by doing so. The fact that they continue to be attacked and that the terrorists change tactics shows that profiling works as the enemy has to change continuously. This takes time, and subsequently gives their security services a chance to gather intelligence and reassess the threat.
Given the current threat I do not believe that it is proportionate sending officers to tube stations, bus stops or crowded places to search randomly selected people, just because some believe that using profiling could be seen as stereotyping or discriminating. Searches under S.44/43 are extremely random and virtually pointless, I have only known of a couple of arrests for specific terrorism offences while doing S.44 stops in groups or as tasking. There have been plenty of arrests, however they have been for other criminal or traffic offences after hundreds of random stops.
There have been many instances where the people stopped and searched have been so far removed from the known terrorist threat that is has been laughable, and yet we are still told that randomly stopping vehicles and people is a valid tactic as it “keeps them on their toes” and that we should not use any form of target profiling.