When I was unlawfully arrested at Southwark tube station in 2005, the first thing police officers said they found suspicious was that I was ‘avoiding them’. When I entered the station, instead of looking at them, I looked at the steps. It probably didn't help either that I had an eye infection that day.
Since then, there has been many more stops and searches without the need for reasonable suspicion, and much further education. This should make it clear that avoiding eye contact does not mean being suspicious.
For instance, the National Autistic Society published Autism: a guide for criminal justice professionals, endorsed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, which contains advice such as:
Misunderstanding social cues
Many people with autism find it difficult to make eye contact. In some cases it will be fleeting or may be avoided altogether. In others, eye contact may be prolonged or intrusive. This has led to cases such as a young man with autism who was served an Anti-Social Behaviour Order for staring over a neighbour’s fence.
“Sometimes we find it hard or even painful to make eye contact, and people can misunderstand us, thinking we are shifty or dishonest.”
Person with Asperger syndrome
“I recently found myself in court opposite a 15-year-old with Asperger syndrome and it was obvious how difficult he was finding the whole thing and how his behaviour might influence the view the magistrates took of him. For example, the lack of eye contact can be interpreted as a person telling lies. Magistrates have been trained on the eye contact issue in connection with certain cultures but I am not sure that they have been made aware of how it is also the case in people with Asperger syndrome.”
Solicitor, Brighton and Hove
However it would appear that avoiding eye contact is still perceived as highly suspect. This is an extract from the UK Border Agency response (pdf) sent a couple of days ago to a freedom of information request by David Hansen about the targeting of bus passengers for passport checks:
Using these powers [to stop and question a person ‘in-country’] Immigration Officers may legitimately question individuals encountered in public places in order to determine their immigration status under three specific circumstances:
- The intelligence is so specific that the Immigration Officer knows the immigration offender will be travelling on a specific date, time, location, train etc;
- The Immigration Officer has formed a reasonable suspicion that the individual is an immigration offender e.g. from what is said by the person during the course of a prior interview with a police officer; or
- Where the individual displays an ‘adverse reaction’ to a clearly identifiable immigration presence. This could give rise to a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the person is an immigration offender. An ‘adverse reaction’ could include attempting to avoid passing through or near a group of Immigration Officers, a sudden or unexplained change of direction, avoiding eye contact or hanging back from barriers. [Emphasis added.]
Rupert Goodwins's recommendation, from his guide to not getting arrested in London, still applies:
He didn't look at the police at the entrance to the station. The plod wasn't detailed about how much looking is required to allay their suspicion — the more the merrier, I guess. I recommend carrying a pair of binoculars on a tripod: there may be no police at your station, and you might have to sweep the area. Once you've found a policeman, stick an "I've Been Seen!" badge on their lapel.