THE BLOG

Stop and Search: Can the Police Get It Right?

10/07/2013 09:15 BST | Updated 08/09/2013 10:12 BST

In the absence of a proven link to crime reduction, and even though only 9% of the one million stops per year lead to an arrest, two questions come to mind: why do police forces continue to use these powers? How are these powers used and to what effect? The recent spate of reports on stop and search ('Stop and Think Again' by the EHRC in June, the Home Secretary's public consultation on the use of stop and search powers last week, followed today by the HMIC inspection report on the use of stop and search across 43 police forces) have reinstated the importance of public scrutiny and interest in understanding the human cost and impact of such police powers. The Home Secretary was adept in calling for a pre-emptive public consultation a week before the publication of the HMIC report. The political acumen and foresight of her media handlers deserves recognition: last week's press was deemed sufficient and took the sting out of the coverage of today's far more substantial report.

Most police forces continue to view the power to stop and search a vital part of policing communities, keeping them safe and reducing crime. StopWatch strongly contests this view; existing data on ethnic disproportionality, lack of public trust in police and complaints procedures raise more questions around legitimacy and lawfulness. We welcome the HMIC report which confirms the over-reliance of stop and search powers by the police. With a strong focus on leadership and standards the report reveals that most police forces lack basic levels of supervision and training which ensure officers use these powers professionally and fairly.

Since the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry of 1999, such renewed interest in these powers is significant. It is worrying that progress in reducing ethnic disproportionality in stop and search since 1999 has declined. The report shows that 27% of the 8,783 records of stop and search examined did not include sufficient grounds to justify the lawful use of the power. This is grim news for Chief Constables because it points to slippages in compliance and reveals the insufficient priority police forces give to such matters of public interest. Non-compliance and unlawful stops and searches may prove to be an expensive burden which police forces may not wish to carry at a time of austerity and cuts to public funds.

StopWatch urges police forces to review how they apply reasonable suspicion and to train officers to get it right more often. We would like to see greater accountability when these powers are used. This means more data - not less. It is important that police-initiated contact is recorded properly and data disaggregated by ethnicity made publicly available. How effective, accountable and fair the police are has repercussions for community confidence in the wider criminal justice system and, it can be argued, in reducing re-offending.