Dawn Butler: ‘It’s Not Every Police Officer, but the System is Structurally Racist’

Labour MP Dawn Butler on being stopped by the police, the far-right campaign of abuse which followed – and why she intends to keep fighting the structural racism that plagues policing in Britain.

The brutal killing of George Floyd highlighted just how important it is to film events, because otherwise we, i.e. African-Caribbean, black people or people of colour, are less likely to be believed.

Last Sunday I experienced it first-hand, as I have done on many occasions in my life. On this occasion I was stopped along with a friend while driving through Hackney on a sunny afternoon, based on nothing but a registration plate which was mistakenly entered and registered to North Yorkshire.

I have since met with the Metropolitan Police. I am told that our vehicle appearing to be from outside of London, and having perfectly legal rear tinted windows, was reasonable grounds for police suspicion. It seems obvious to me now that Section 163 stops need legal reform.

I am still not clear about why being from North Yorkshire would be a reason to be stopped. It was made clear to me after the stop that we were not pulled over due to any actionable intelligence or reasonable suspicion.

This is nothing new to me. I have been stopped before – including outside parliament. But what made this incident different was the barrage of hate and abuse that I received in its wake, with many far-right accounts doubting my story and accusing me of lying.

I have set the record straight many times now. My friend is black, not white or mixed heritage, while the footage was not flipped but filmed on my front-facing camera. But I have come to realise that none of it matters to the trolls – all that matters to them is coming up with any desperate reason to deny any form of racism, racial profiling, bias and the lived experience of a black woman. It is so unreal because we all have biases and none of us are perfect.

However, this is not about me. What I am doing by using my voice as an MP and telling my story is highlighting that, sadly, being stopped is an often-daily occurrence for people of colour in this country. This is something which cannot be denied – it is backed up by facts.

Black people are ten times more likely to be stopped and searched in this country. During lockdown, the Met Police stopped and searched the equivalent of 1 in 4 young black men. These are truly staggering statistics and it proves that institutional racism does exist.

I wish we knew the statistics for road stops. Section 163 stops are used around 5.5 million times a year, yet they are not subject to basic safeguards such as reporting requirements. But I know from the experiences of people of colour that being pulled over happens all too often. I have been inundated with accounts of stops – ‘we smelled cannabis,’ but on searching nothing was found.

My nephew called me to say ‘aunty, I was sitting in a car park waiting for my friend and the police just appeared, I had to get out and was embarrassingly searched, while still wearing my work uniform.’ My cousin phoned me to tell me that while wearing his London underground uniform he was stopped in Walthamstow and informed that his car was registered in Leytonstone.

We need to start building trust between the community and the police. It has never really existed. I was given ‘the talk’ by my brothers aged around 13. One of the very first things that the police could do to try to rebuild trust with Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in particular, is to release data on how many people stopped on the road were racially profiled and what the reasons were for being stopped.

I am also clear that we cannot pretend this a problem limited to the capital. Figures from 2019 in Kent showed that ethnic minority groups were up to 22 times more likely to be stopped than white people. And there are many examples from around the country that we can also point to.

This is a problem not limited to a particular area, it is a systematic problem with policing in this country. I know from my own experience, and from hearing those of others, that too often there is inherent and learned bias as well as stereotyping and false assumptions at play.

That is not to say that every individual officer is racist, but the system is structurally racist. I have made clear that the officer who stopped me was polite. I don’t want him being abused on social media, he was following a flawed system and a system that has inbuilt biases.

But I know that nothing will change solely by highlighting the problems – that has been done for years. Now is the time to talk about solutions and we need the police, including Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, to get on board with the call for change. I understand her reluctance to accept institutional racism, we have seen this many times before, but if you don’t accept there’s a problem you will not try to change or reform things.

I want the police to first come to the realisation that the current method of policing is not working effectively. The disproportionate and over-policing of people of colour is only breeding more resentment, distrust and animosity. And not only that, it is not even effective.

Between 2010 and 2018, 85% of all stop and searches led to no further action. That means stop and search has a 15% success rate. In what other workplace would a system with such a low success rate be pursued? It is not worth the harm it causes, so we must find something more effective, with better outcomes, and one that is not discriminatory.

I am pulling together the police, experts and campaigners to do just that. That includes organisations such as Stopwatch, the Runnymede Trust, Amnesty and Liberty, Jennifer Eberhardt, and others – all of whom have been working on these issues for a long time and have solutions ready to put forward.

I am convinced that when we all come together in a room, we can and must find a way forward which both ends the scourge of institutional racism and brings about more effective policing for all of our diverse communities.

Once we do that, we will move a step closer to justice, and a situation where the removal of people’s liberty is done with care and compassion, and based on intelligence and reasonable suspicion. We can build a system that all police officers are happy to use and communities are happy to be policed by.

When we all work proactively together our streets will become safer.