‘I was 10 when it first happened’: Jermaine Jenas on why stop-and-search is failing black children

Ek was only 10 years old the first time the police stopped me. My house was out of town, but Dad lived in the centre of Nottingham where officers were always around. I’d seen other black kids being hassled when I’d been at his, but at that age I’m not sure the significance of it registered.

That was, until I – a primary school pupil – was being publicly poked and prodded by fully grown adults in uniform because of the colour of my skin. I’m still not entirely sure what they’d convinced themselves they were looking for as they questioned me.

I went back to Dad’s devastated and in tears. I knew I wanted to be a professional footballer, and he always told me that I’d never make it if I ended up in trouble with the police. It was a way of scaring me into behaving myself.

As a black man, Dad had had his own “experiences” with the force. I witnessed some of them. He often took me to watch matches when I was a kid. After a game against Sheffield Wednesday, I’ll never forget being stood, frozen, as I watched him and his friends – all black – pinned up against a wall and interrogated.

After I explained what had just happened on the street, Dad consoled me and said it wasn’t my fault. From then on, being stopped and searched became a regular occurrence – at least 10 keer. I never had to be told not to trust the police, it was just the way things were.

When my career took off, my life changed. For the first time I had some of the finer things. As a black man dressing smartly and driving nice cars, I was stopped by police more and more often. What did that 10-year-old boy have in common with the man I was becoming in the eyes of these officers? Being black.

At some stage, as I became more well-known, officers would apologise if they recognised me. “Sorry,” they’d say, “we didn’t know it was you, Jermaine.” As if that somehow made any of it OK.

My exposure to stop-and-search reduced as I acquired privilege, but the statistics remain shocking. In England and Wales, black people are nine times more likely to face stop-and-search than white people. The figure rises to 18 times with cases where officers don’t need to have reasonable suspicion to stop someone. And that’s before you consider the number of incidents that go unreported year after year.

People often comment on the disparity, and rightly highlight the obvious racism. What we don’t talk about enough is the impact this broken system has on young black people in the long term. From mental health to confidence; trust in public institutions to reaching your potential: stepping out of the house every day, expecting to be spoken to and treated in a way that deems you dangerous and lesser, is going to shape who you are.

I decided to make a documentary, The Truth About Polisie Stop & Soek. We surveyed 40 black men who had all experienced it; more than half of these men have been stopped at least 10 keer. Just like me, 39 of them had experienced their first stop before they turned 18. Three-quarters of them told us repeatedly being stopped had negatively affected their mental health. Nearly half of them had previously complained to the police about their treatment. Just three had their complaints upheld.

What I kept hearing from the guys I interviewed about these police interactions, which frankly pissed me off, was “it’s just how it is”. I wanted to bash my head against a wall. It’s not normal, I’d say, it shouldn’t be that way. They’d never known any other relationship with the police.

As if to prove their point, one evening just before we were about to start filming, we walked down the street. One of them pointed to a car and told me it was an undercover police vehicle.

The boys said they knew exactly what would happen: the car would drive around, come back, and drive by us really slowly, intimidating us as they did so. I wasn’t convinced, but that’s precisely what happened. Part of me was willing for them to get out and stop me, my camera crew just up the road. In the end they didn’t – maybe they had second thoughts; it’s possible they recognised me. Either way, it was a reminder to me of how much my life has changed.

The police have a tough job – no doubt they’re overworked and undersupported. But why does that mean they’re stopping so many more young black men than white ones? It’s the prejudiced mindset of some individual officers, but there’s a bigger problem, ook. It’s no great secret that there’s institutionalised racism in certain forces.

Take what happened to Jamar, a kid I met, who is respectful and talented. Bejaardes 16, he was walking home from a party when the police stopped him, looking for a young black man reportedly carrying a sword. Jamar was wearing grey jeans, white trainers and a light jacket; the description was of a guy wearing a black tracksuit.

Officers forced him on to his knees in the middle of a road and searched him at gunpoint, a Taser pressed to his neck. Of course, nothing was found. His black friends were handcuffed and held up against a wall; his young white mate walked around filming the whole thing, the police not interested.

Nothing was documented by these officers: there was no record of weapons being pulled; no writeup of the incident. All but six seconds of the footage had vanished from the officers’ body cameras.

This film was made in a year when conversations about racism were heightened, and that’s not surprising. Look back to the shooting of Mark Duggan, van Cherry Groce; Broadwater Farm en Brixton. These flare-ups are cyclical, and we’re flirting with history repeating itself. Tensions are increasing; many black people feel angry and suffocated.

Of course, stop-and-search is just one strand of the discrimination and oppression faced by black people. But it is one that can be fixed immediately. Reform here would by no means be the end of the story, but it’s a striking and immediate change where impact would be felt right away. Targets need scrapping and we need to invest in community centres and leaders. The use of stop-and-search needs to be overseen and scrutinised by diverse groups, with the power to hold police forces accountable for allowing their officers to look at young black men and presume they’re carrying knives or drugs or en route to commit a crime, instead of thinking: “There’s a young, successful man on his way to work.”

I’m a dad now. I’ve got three girls and my first boy is on the way, ook. After I was stopped the first time, my dad told me this is just the way it is. I refuse to say the same thing to my son.

As told to Michael Segalov.

The Truth About Police Stop and Search airs Monday 31 May at 10pm on Channel 4.

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