Labour MP Dawn Butler stopped by police in London

By Peter Walker Political correspondent

Dawn Butler, the Labour MP and former shadow equalities minister, has accused the police of being institutionally racist after she was stopped while driving to Sunday lunch with a friend.

Butler, a strong critic of police stop-and-search tactics, said the car was being driven by her male friend, who like Butler is black, when two police cars pulled it over in Hackney, east London. Officers said the vehicle was registered in North Yorkshire.

After taking the BMW’s keys and checking the registration, the officers admitted there had been a mistake and apologised, Butler told the Guardian. The Metropolitan police later said in a statement that an officer had initially entered the registration number wrongly into a computer system, and that neither the MP nor her friend were searched.

It is the third time Butler has been stopped by police as an MP, she said, while her friend had been stopped regularly.

The incident places renewed focus on an area of policing, particularly in London, that critics regularly say is racist. Black and minority ethnic people are stopped and searched, and there are concerns this has been exacerbated by the coronavirus lockdown.

It emerged last month that young black men were stopped and searched by police more than 20,000 times in London during the lockdown, the equivalent of more than a quarter of all black 15- to 24-year-olds in the capital. Across England as a whole there were four stop and searches for every 1,000 white people and 38 for every 1,000 black people in 2018-19.

Butler said she had been happy with the attitude of the officer who dealt with the registration, and would not have complained publicly were it not for the approach of two other police involved.

One of them asked Butler where she lived and was going, and said the pair had been stopped because “there’s people who have been coming into the area”, without explaining what this meant, the MP said.

Another officer, a woman, had “inflamed the situation” by saying tinted rear windows on the car could be illegal, she added. The law about tinting on windows applies only to the windscreen and front windows.

“I had no intention of speaking about this until the officers became very obnoxious,” said Butler, who made a video recording of the incident on her phone. “I just felt that if I don’t use my platform to talk about this, I’m doing a disservice to everyone who gets wrongly stopped and searched, and all the black people who are constantly unjustly profiled.”

In the video, Butler can be heard telling the officers: “It is really quite irritating. It’s like you cannot drive around and enjoy a Sunday afternoon whilst black because you’re going to be stopped by police.” One of the officers tells her: “I appreciate everything you say and I do apologise for wasting your time.”

The MP said she and her friend had been heading to meet people socially: “We were just going out to have a nice lunch. My plans were basically ruined. It’s a sunny Sunday, and you don’t get many of those.

“I’ve been stopped while driving twice as an MP. My friend has experienced it a number of times. That’s why his attitude was just like, ‘Here, have my driving licence. Here we go again.’”

The Brent Central MP said she was puzzled that the police computer could wrongly say her friend’s car was registered outside London, and that this was sufficient reason to stop them regardless.

“That’s really interesting, because I’m doing a lot of work with the police at the moment,” she said. “It’s really important that we focus on whether the system is institutionally racist. It needs to change. It’s a bogus reason for stopping someone.”

The Met police statement said officers stopped a car in Hackney at about midday on Sunday: “Prior to stopping the vehicle, an officer incorrectly entered the registration into a police computer which identified the car as registered to an address in Yorkshire.

“Upon stopping the vehicle and speaking with the driver, it quickly became apparent that the registration had been entered incorrectly and was registered to the driver in London. Once the mistake was realised the officer sought to explain this to the occupants; they were then allowed on their way. No searches were carried out on any individuals.

“One of the occupants has since been contacted by a senior officer and they have discussed the stop, subsequent interaction as well as feedback regarding the stop. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter further with the occupants if they wish to do so.”

The area commander for north-west London, chief superintendent Roy Smith, said he had spoken to Butler. He tweeted: “She has given me a very balanced account of the incident. She was positive about one officer and gave feedback on others and the stop. We are listening to those concerns and Dawn is quite entitled to raise them.”

Butler revealed in July that she had closed her constituency office over fears about the safety of her staff. She had been to the police the previous month over threats following her support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

In an interview with the Guardian last week, Butler called for an end to stop-and-search tactics by police, saying the approach was racist. “It does not work, or rather, it works the way it’s designed to work. It is designed to be discriminatory,” she said.

“The fact is, where a police officer can stop a person of colour driving a car, saying, ‘We smelled drugs coming from your car; that’s why we stopped you’, and then, when they search the car, there are no drugs, you have to ask yourself: what were they smelling?”

Butler, 50, who served as a junior minister under Gordon Brown and was shadow women and equalities minister for Jeremy Corbyn for nearly three years, stood to be the party’s deputy leader this year but was eliminated in the first round of voting.