L.A month appeared that there was an increase of 400% in the police use of "standstill and search" powers. And according to a recent Guardian report, there is evidence that black people are disproportionately targeted. This is deeply depressing. There are real reasons for concern that, once again, the use of this police strategy is problem-solving.
Our new report, Beyond Contagion, published today, supports the view that stopping and searching may have unintended, but significant social and psychological consequences. We examined the data patterns in the unrest in 2011 – especially as these events arose and spread. The significance of the unrest is indisputable: this was the biggest wave of unrest in Britain since the 1980s, and involved about 20,000 people, with more than 4,000 arrests. It is important to understand the underlying causes.
In our research, we have attracted a comprehensive set of data, including videos, social media, interviews and crime data. One part of our analysis reviewed the differences between those London municipalities that noted riots and those that were not. From the various factors we considered, the deprivation (using the Multiple Deprivation Index for 2010) was the one that most closely related to whether the storm appeared without a riot. Another part of our analysis examined the data from the investigation of the police investigations of the Metropolitan. This showed that previous negative attitudes towards the police, including the belief that the police did not treat people with respect, was positively linked to the number of disturbances per district.
We also looked at stop and search data for London for 2009, 2010 and January-July 2011 (months before the unrest in August 2011). We included all categories for stopping and searching in the analysis, and we adjusted the numbers for the population size in the borough. We discovered that the more-distant regions and the search for two and a half years are those that are more likely to occur in August 2011. To illustrate this point, the average number of stops and searches in 2010 in the 26 municipalities that were riots was 8,442 per 100,000 inhabitants, which was more than double the average number (4,141) for the six municipalities that did not see riots.
One interpretation of this finding is that stopping and searching is a factor in the unrest. Correlation is not a reason, of course, so these data alone can not show connection. However, when we re-analyzed some of the detailed data on the interviews collected as part of the Guardian's "Reading the Riots" project, there seems to be a link.
It was a minority of respondents who described that they had experience of stopping and searching. But it was a great minority. Twenty-six participants involved in the riot at Brixton, Clapham or Croydon point to stopping and searching and other forms of police attention that they described as unfair.
These meetings with the police had several features that illuminate the social relationships created by stopping and searching. First, stopping and searching was a deeply degrading experience. Second, the humiliation was experienced communally, as well as individually. Therefore it does not matter if people personally experienced stopping and searching; they have seen these and similar encounters with the police as an attack on "us". Third, people used these experiences to explain the hostility to police and their participation in the riots.
When people are already feeling alienated and deprived, police interventions such as stopping and searching put the face of an antagonistic friend. They serve to create a unified community – a community in which opposition to police is part of the common identity around which people are mobilized.
We note that the increase in the number of stops and searches last year was accompanied by a slight drop in the number of arrests. The discrepancy between the number of stops and searches and the number of arrests was also a feature of the period just before the riots. For Haringey in 2009, for example, only 4.8% of those who were detained and searched were arrested, which means that more than 30,000 unsuccessful searches were made in that borough.
From a police point of view, these numbers may suggest that stopping and searching are ineffective. A report by the College of Police Research concluded that there was "only limited evidence of stopping and searching that acted as an obstacle [to crime] on the level of the borough. "From the point of view of black and working-class young people who are disproportionately targeted, the difference between searches and arrests only supports the perception that stopping and searching is a form of collective harassment.
Stop and search is deeply toxic, especially when people feel that they are interrupted because of their class or ethnicity. Our research suggests that this is a critical part of the social process in which riots occur. Unless we stop looking to stop and seek a solution, and not part of the problem, they will be repeated again.
• John Drury is a professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex. The "Out of the Contagion" project was conducted by Driri, Roger Ball, Clifford Stott, Stephen Reicher and Fergus Neville