Perceptions. While community outreach and more diplomatic terminology is being well received by some in the Muslim community, police face an uphill battle, made more difficult by persistent perceptions of bias and prejudice.
Most Muslims in the U.K. come from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—or can trace their family roots back to that region. Some accuse the police of racism. That feeling, whether valid or not, is fueled by the way police have used their expanded authority, specifically with regard to two powers: stop and search, and the right to hold suspects without criminal charges.
Stop and search. Even before 9-11, police had the authority to stop and search persons without probable cause, but after 9-11 critics say that police have used that authority more often against Blacks, Asians, and Middle Easterners—the races and ethnicities most associated with Islam. Muslims complain that the law stigmatizes them as terrorists. “[T]here is this image that if you get stopped under the counterterrorism powers,” the Muslim Safety Forum’s Ali says, “you are in other people’s eyes a terrorist.”
Criminalizing Muslim youth in this manner only serves as a recruitment tool for radicals, critics say. One man complained at a townhall meeting that police harassment provided jihadist recruiters with a perfect pitch: “Well, they stop and search you anyway; they think you’re a criminal anyway; why not join us?”
The criticism is not supported by Met statistics. Of the 22,672 people stopped and searched from September 2005 to September 2006, 16 percent were of Asian descent, while 52 percent were white.
Muslim feelings of discrimination may stem from the aftermath of 9-11. According to a 2004 MPA report, stops and searches of Black and Asian people increased by 30 percent and 41 percent respectively from 2001 to 2002.
While police may not be applying stop and search powers disproportionately to Muslims, the perception that they are doing so is damaging community relations. As a result, the MPA has recommended that police curtail their use of stop and search if they don’t see clear evidence that it is an effective tool in helping to prevent terrorism. But proving or disproving that is no simple matter. As every security professional knows, it’s difficult to prove a negative—to say what prevented something bad, such as a theft or a terrorist attack, from occurring.
The Met’s statistics show that during the same 2005 to 2006 time period, 27 terrorism arrests were made from stop and search incidents. Of the incidents directly related to counterterrorism, there was a 1.2 percent arrest rate compared to an overall arrest rate of 11.8 percent for all other stop-and-search incidents. But the police say that those numbers do not tell the whole story. Their ability to stop and search any person or vehicle helps them to disrupt terrorist activity and is not intended to result in arrest and conviction, they say.
Chief Superindentent Ali Dizaei, a senior Muslim police officer at the Met, disagrees. He argued in Jane’s Police Review that stop and search has harmed counter-terrorism efforts by making it less likely that the Muslim community will share intelligence with the local police.
While not willing to abandon the practice, police are attempting to put a more friendly face on stops to blunt the harm they may do to relations, says Harris. To that end, the Met has introduced a new strategy that stresses courtesy and explains to suspects why they have been stopped.
“There is a difference between stopping them because, ‘You look like the sort of person that would plant a bomb,’” Harris says, “and explaining to someone, ‘We’re stopping one in every ten people in this area to lessen the threat of terrorism.’ Most people would be affronted by the first type of approach, whatever their race or religion. Most people feel it’s reasonable if they get the second type of approach.”
Detention. Even more contentious than stop and search authority is the police force’s power to detain a terrorism suspect without charge. Police held the authority to detain suspects for up to 14 days even before 9-11. That authority was expanded to 28 days when Parliament passed the Terrorism Act 2006 in response to the July 7 bombings.
Proponents say that detentions help police gather evidence and intelligence. Aside from civil liberty concerns, critics say that the practice hurts efforts to gather intelligence by making the community hostile to the government’s antiterrorism efforts.
Between 9-11 and the end of 2006, 1,162 people have been detained under suspicion of a terrorism-related offense in the United Kingdom. The longer suspects were held in detention, the more likely they were to be charged with a crime, but that alone does not prove the worth of the longer detention.
The Home Office argues that the 2006 airline plot illustrates the need for a 28-day detention period. Police held 24 men on suspicion of conspiring to blow up two airliners flying from London to the United States. During the investigation, the police seized 200 cell phones and 400 computers. They took 8,000 CDs, DVDs, and computer disks, containing 6,000 gigabytes of data. They searched 70 homes, businesses, and open spaces.
It takes time to sort through that volume of data to find evidence that can serve as the basis for charges. Police officers argue that they would have had to release suspects before they could fully examine all of the materials if it weren’t for the 28-day maximum detention period.
In defending detention, Harris differentiates it from internment without trial—a practice the British used against IRA suspects in Northern Ireland that “acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA,” according to Justice Secretary Jack Straw. Suspects are taken into custody in connection with a specific crime in precharge detention, says Harris. Judicial oversight is constant, and at the end of 28 days, a suspect must either be charged or released. “This is a very different process,” he says.
Yet British Muslims don’t see the distinction, says Ali. As a result, it is alienating many Muslims and causing segments of the community to see the police as an occupation force.