Race Matters

The Dangers of Stop and Search

Stopwatch has released new research estimating that five million unrecorded traffic searches occur annually. In addition, through Freedom of Information requests they found that children as young as 12 are being stripped searched by the police. This new research adds to the high profile year that stop and search had in 2013, which culminated in a government consultation on how fairly and effectively the powers are used in relation to street crime, burglary, antisocial behaviour, and public order offences.

Outcries about stop and search are not surprising, especially when you consider that it only has a 9% arrest rate nationally. It is a deeply ineffective practice, resulting in a huge amount of unnecessary stops. This was the conclusion of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) which recently carried out an inspection of stop and search across England and Wales and also criticised the lack of front-line supervision of police officers carrying out the use of those powers.

A pitiful arrest rate means that the overall impact of stop and search is not on crime prevention or detection, rather, it is a continuous toil on young people and communities whose rights are violated through repeated and unnecessary stops. When you take into account that black people get stopped at 6  times the rate of white people, and Asian people are twice as likely to be stopped and searched as white people, it becomes apparent that stop and search disproportionately affects a very specific section of the population.

In stop and search minority ethnic groups are still struggling to protect their right to fair treatment before the law, leading to a knock on effect of communities losing faith in an institution which exists to protect them. It affects how groups see the police, and in turn how they behave around them. In a survey that we conducted in August of this year we found that over a third of Black Caribbean (37%) respondents had felt discriminated against by the police due to the colour of their skin, their ethnic origin or religion, compared to only 2% of White British respondents. If it is the police’s duty to protect communities, a fear of discrimination makes this relationship impossible to realize.

Black and minority ethnic groups repeated negative experience of coming into contact with the police, makes them feel that they are not part of the society that the police are meant to protect. As a result, people do not cooperate with the police, so they are unlikely to report crime, if they are a victim or a witness. This perpetuates a less safe environment.

This compromises the BME community’s right to safety as they do not feel protected by the police. Because they don’t feel safe in their neighbourhoods  they look elsewhere for protection. For many, gangs provide that feeling of security the police do not. Entry into gangs is therefore partly driven by poor police community relations.

The consultation on stop and search has revealed significant damage to community trust and confidence towards the police, especially among those groups disproportionately stopped.

The innate connection between human rights and stop and search is recognized by many working for reform of these powers. Nick Glynn a police officer who himself has been stopped and searched on over 30 occasions said:

“The freedom to walk the streets of England and Wales has been long fought for and such freedoms should be treasured and protected. The overuse and misuse of police stop search powers should continue to be challenged until it can be shown that all uses of those powers are necessary, lawful and proportionate to the threat they are supposed to mitigate. The 2013 HMIC inspection shows that police forces up and down the country are currently unable to demonstrate that the powers are being used fairly or in a proportionate manner.

Stop and search is not the answer to crime reduction and prevention. The human cost of the overuse and misuse of stop search powers has for too long been ignored or avoided with a fixation on figures rather than impact. If stop search powers are to continue in their current form a new approach which ensures they are used far less and only when use can be justified is essential. Until then the relationship between the police and the thousands of people who are subject to the powers will continue to be damaged.”

Rachel Taylor, a lawyer specializing in stop and search has explained how the practice violates Human Rights Law:

“A stop and search will often be distressing and humiliating for the individual concerned. Although it is unlikely that a stop and search will result in an arrest, and whilst an encounter may last only a few minutes, individuals often feel criminalised and tainted by the experience. This is particularly so where the stop is seen to have been based on grounds of race, or where an individual has been stopped repeatedly.

Being subjected to an unlawful stop and search will often involve an individual’s human rights being breached. This may be because they:
i.            are deprived of their liberty, contrary to Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR);
ii.            have personal information about them recorded without justification, contrary to Article 8 ECHR; or
iii.    were stopped on the basis of their race, contrary to Article 14 ECHR.

Potential Solutions

Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC’s) can be part of the solution as a large part of their role is to ensure that human rights are at the centre of policing in the UK and to demonstrate the work they are doing to hold police forces to account. This includes making the good practice we see in some regions being used across the country, ending racial profiling in stop and search through using better intelligence and accurately recording where stop and search is used.

PCC’s can make this happen by introducing radical reform of stop search powers (including stops under PACE, the Road Traffic Act and Schedule 7) and reducing their use. For example, traffic stops are not currently recorded, but we are aware that there is a high rate of ethnic disproportionality among these. This would give a clearer picture of the scale of discrimination in stop and search.

For stop and search to be effective, it must be employed as part of a wider crime fighting strategy rather than used arbitrarily. In their recent national inspection of stop and search the HMIC called for better recordings of encounters in order to judge effectiveness. This includes recording whether the object of the search was found or not, and using the data from each stop to detect crime patterns. Directly connecting the stop to a crime clarifies how the power was used, and encourages the police to map crime rather than conducting individual unconnected stop and searches devoid of strategy, without taking intelligence from it. In addition, a more robust definition of what 'reasonable grounds for suspicion' is and what it looks like would further guide this.

There should be a move to more intelligence led stop and search, so that people feel that when they are being stopped it is because there is evidence suggesting they might be carrying prohibited materials or are suspected in a crime. People are more likely to cooperate with the police, if they feel there is a good reason for them being stopped, rather than perceived police prejudice.

Police should fully explain the stop and search, including the grounds for the stop and the legal power with which they are being stopped, and the officer’s ID and station details. If there is greater transparency and the public is informed about what is going on, they are more likely to trust what they are being told.

In order to protect the rights of the child, more guidelines on protecting minors from being stopped and searched, such as only being able to do so in the presence of a responsible adult, e.g. a parent/guardian, should be introduced.

In order to make police officers accountable for their actions, PCC’s should take disciplinary action against officers who consistently misuse the powers, resulting in their dismissal if necessary.

Young people and those from minority ethnic communities should be engaged in genuine forms of consultation on the use of stop and search instead of committees which lack any influence on policy and merely act as a ‘rubber stamp’ or afterthought to decisions already made.

There is much work to do on reforming stop and search so that BME groups are not disproportionately affected by it, and that human rights are protected. This is not to say that there is not already great work being done in some areas of the country. For example, the Stop and Search Reference Group in Suffolk is made up of people from local communities mainly from BME groups, who scrutinise draft forms and offers invaluable insight and advice enabling the police to continue to improve the trust and confidence of BME communities regarding stop and search. There is also the Youth Monitoring Group in Hackney who act as a bridge between other young people in the area and the police to make sure that youth voices reach to the police.

Note: A version of this blog was first published on Runnymede's website on 11 November 2013.

Photo credit: Belkus, Flickr
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