Proposed amendments to the Road Traffic Act allow for police officers and “senior approved persons” to conduct “frisk searches”, and to use handheld scanners to screen commuters on buses and trains. These measures are being introduced without adequate discussion of the potential costs of “frisk searches” on members of the public. Transformative Justice Collective (TJC) is further concerned that these measures will contribute to racial and religious profiling, and perpetuate racist and xenophobic sentiments that have unfortunately been intensifying in our society of late.
One study on young urban men in New York found that those who reported experiencing police stops also reported higher levels of anxiety, and those experiencing more intrusive stops reported more trauma. While Dr Amy Khor’s statement in Parliament compared ‘frisk searches’ to routine security searches at major public events, this discounts the psychological effect it may have on those who are singled out for searches during their public transport journey in plain view of other commuters.
It has been the case that “stop and frisk” practices in other jurisdictions, for example in New York and the United Kingdom, have drawn strong criticisms for disproportionately targeting minority men and boys. It has given rise to a sense of expectation that they will be stopped simply for going about their daily lives.
Dr Khor’s statements in Parliament highlighted that individuals who are given the power to conduct frisk searches will be trained (in the form of Workforce Skills Qualification Courses) on how to identify individuals displaying ‘suspicious behaviour’, so as to prevent bias against any racial and religious groups. But she failed to explain what ‘suspicious behaviour’ entails. ‘Suspicious behaviour’ is a nebulous idea, like ‘dangerous people’, both given to stereotypes based on race, skin colour, class and presentation (e.g. people with tattoos and piercings also tend to be disproportionately targeted). Is preemptive policing of this nature really capable of being free of biases, since its very premise is making assumptions about who is more likely to be a danger to others? It has also been shown that training police officers does not necessarily translate to fairer practices. In the absence of transparency around the training materials and guidelines for how officers should make decisions about who to stop and frisk, these reassurances by Dr Khor ring hollow.
There is little by way of legislative safeguard against the unnecessary use or abuse of such powers. Police officers and “senior approved persons” are ultimately given complete discretion in deciding who they will frisk. In the US or UK, generally there must be a reasonable suspicion that you have committed the crime or are in possession of an illegal item to conduct a search. Officers need to inform you of the specific reason for the search. Here, in the proposed amendment to the Road Traffic Act, it is instead stated in a catch-all fashion that a search may be conducted as long as the officer “reasonably considers it necessary” to “ensure the security of safety of persons” on public transport. Such broad powers to police and search our bodies are antithetical to our welfare, autonomy and sense of safety as we use public transport.
The proposed amendments also do not contain any form of recourse to those who may feel aggrieved by the manner of the frisk search, or by the conduct of the individual carrying out the search.
Ultimately, profiling contributes to a sense of alienation, disenfranchisement and stigmatisation of racial and religious minorities, and other marginalised groups. Anecdotally, we know that many Indian, Malay men – especially if they are dark-skinned, travel alone, sport beards or carry backpacks – have repeatedly been stopped for bag checks and screening. They find it extremely humiliating and distressing to be subjected to such a check, to the extent that many of them account for the extra time this will take when they are commuting by public transport. Notably, one Tamil man reported that when he started driving, and didn’t have to go through these dehumanising checks anymore, his mental health improved significantly, and he felt much more control over how he occupied public space.
These frisk searches represent another way for the State to intrude upon the bodies and lives of minority and marginalised communities, who already face microaggressions and other material harms in almost every aspect of their lives.
The state often relies on the rhetoric of ‘national security’ and ‘terrorist threats’ to justify the unilateral expansion of intrusive police powers and to dismiss concerns about the harms these practices bring about. Given the state’s outsized power and control over shaping the narratives around ‘national security’ and ‘terrorist threats’, when these justifications are trotted out to expand police or state powers, there is added responsibility in being transparent about the threat assessment to the public. There is also a need to weigh the necessity and effectiveness of each specific measure that expands police and state powers, against the potential harm and intrusion into our privacy and well-being that they bring.
TJC opposes this expansion of police powers to stop-and-frisk, and calls for its removal.