The SPG – SUS laws – and 80s riots

I was standing at a bus stop in 1981 when a police car I didn’t realise was Special Patrol Group (SPG) stopped and one of the officers inside asked me what I was doing.   “Waiting for a bus,” I said, bit confused by the question.  “Well get a move on,” he replied.

And that was my one and only encounter with the SPG.

I appreciate that had I been black, my encounter might have been more prolonged and led me to a local cop shop.   I found this in my 80s collection – a leaflet from a group in south London campaigning against the so-called SUS laws allowing police to stop young people and search them in the street.  This became a major cause of the 1981 riots.

So, what was the SPG and why was this police unit problematic?

  • This unit was part of the Metropolitan Police and specialised in public disorder and in the Thatcher era was seen as a highly politicised branch of the police
  • It had been set up in 1961 and was seen as an elite unit that officers would aspire to join
  • The SPG tended to enforce stop and search, referred to as the SUS laws, which came to be seen as disproportionately affecting black youth in inner cities. The enforcement of this law undoubtedly contributed to the 1981 riots in areas like Brixton
  • In 1979, the SPG’s conduct during severe rioting in the Southall area of London came under scrutiny following the death of teacher Blair Peach

The SPG even inspired a punk song by The Exploited.


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