Stop Search - Less of Them, Targeted and With Outcomes or the Damage Will Continue

In her announcement to Parliament last month the Home Secretary, Theresa May recognised that the misuse of stop and search is "unfair, particularly to young black men". Organisations like StopWatchUK, Open Society and the Runnymede Trust have been saying this for years, so what has changed?

Stop and search. Much has been written about it and much will be written about it in the future. I am going to take a different approach though by not starting this piece by trotting out the stock phrase that starts practically everything you ever read about stop and search. More of that later.

The police have a range of powers and tactics at their disposal to prevent and detect crime but the most potent, reliable and effective of these is trust and confidence in policing itself. Anything that undermines this is counterproductive. The overuse and misuse of stop search powers in the last decade or so has caused damage and resentment that will take time and genuine investment to repair.

In her announcement to Parliament last month the home secretary, Theresa May recognised that the misuse of stop and search is "unfair, particularly to young black men". Organisations like StopWatchUK, Open Society and the Runnymede Trust have been saying this for years, so what has changed?

Firstly, there has been a change in focus away from merely quoting the figures. The human impact which occurs when stop search is overused or misused has been more readily recognised, in part due to features like StopWatch's 'Viewed with Suspicion'. This highlights the ripple effect through the family and friends of those subjected to unlawful or unnecessary stop searches. Social media has also played its part with many YouTube clips showing the reality of police activity where people are stopped and/or searched in dubious circumstances.

Second is the relatively recent recognition that simply doing more stop search is not the answer. Excessive use of stop search was largely driven by the target led culture in policing of the last decade. Maybe my 2010 article on this very subject, "It's Quality not Quantity that counts" should have had a wider readership? Targets are engrained in police culture. Many front line police officers have under 15 years service and became officers when everything they did was subject to numeric targets. This drove perverse activity, including some officers 'making up' stop searches that actually didn't take place. These same officers carry out the bulk of stop searches as they tend to be on the front line. You can tell them that the targets have been removed but many officers simply don't believe it on the basis of what they see and hear at work from colleagues, supervisors or managers. Preventing the overuse of police powers as a result of targets will take more than mere declarations of good intent.

Thirdly, HMIC have lifted the lid on stop search, providing clear, authoritative, unequivocal evidence that abuses have taken place. 27% of the stop searches examined by HMIC in their 2013 inspections failed to comply with the 'reasonable grounds to suspect' test required by law. It is unclear what follow up action has been taken in relation to the 200+ stop searches that HMIC identified failed to comply with the rules. This lack of accountability is something that is often cited as a source of frustration by those who are subjected to misuse of these intrusive powers. HMIC made 10 sensible recommendations for improvements and re-inspections this year will show what progress has been made.

Fourthly, home secretary, Theresa May has made it clear that stop and search matters. In her recent, critical speech to the Police Federation conference Ms May mentioned stop search four times. She reiterated her determination to see stop search use "come down, become more targeted and lead to more arrests". She has made a number of recommendations that mean changes will happen. There is also a recognition that the wider use of police stop powers such as road traffic stops and strip search also need to come under more exacting scrutiny. This determination from government whilst long overdue is welcome.

Finally, as a result of all of the above, stop search is back on the agenda. It needs to stay on the agenda so that things don't slip, as they quickly will if the spotlight shifts elsewhere. But what of the phrase which usually starts a discussion on stop search - "stop and search is an essential crime fighting tool". Maybe there has been a recognition that starting with that phrase prevents people from hearing anything else on the subject. Maybe now the people who can influence change are listening to the rest of the conversation.


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