Section 60 stop and search powers

Rebekah Delsol

In matters of policing and equality, stop and search practices have become the crucial litmus test. Although this was first tackled back in 1984 with new standards for stop and search under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE),[1] recent headlines such as “Some PCs are looking to put me in my place as a black man”,[2] and “Stop and search disproportionately targets black and Asian people”[3] highlight enduring concerns about the ‘over policing’ of black people in Britain. The focus of these concerns has usually been on stops and searches conducted under section 1 of PACE, which requires officers to have reasonable suspicion to conduct a stop. Where individualised grounds of suspicion are required, racial stereotypes should have less sway, and the fact that serious disproportionality persists in PACE stops and searches has rightly been the subject of much debate. However, civil rights advocates are concerned that the police are increasingly turning to other stop and search powers that carry no requirement of reasonable suspicion, and that under these, disproportionate stops and searches of black and Asian people are even higher than under PACE. One such power is section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.[4] Since its introduction in 1994, official data shows that the numbers of section 60 stop and searches have increased dramatically and the powers are being used in response to a far wider range of incidents than originally intended under the law.

Section 60 was originally introduced to tackle football hooliganism and the threat of serious violence. It could only be authorised by officers at Superintendent level and above. Stop and searches under section 60 are of particular concern because they do not require ‘reasonable suspicion’ that an individual is about to commit a crime or is carrying a weapon. Just being in an area covered by a section 60 authorisation is enough for officers to conduct a stop and search.

In 1997 and then again in 1998, section 60 powers were extended to cover situations where senior officers believe that persons are carrying “dangerous instruments or offensive weapons” and to allow officers to remove or seize items hiding a persons’ identity, whether or not weapons are found.[5] The changes to the law also permitted the initial 24 hour period to be extended for a further 24 hours, and reduced the rank level to Inspector rank and above who could authorise the application of section 60 in those areas where they anticipated incidents of serious violence.

Since that time, the numbers of section 60 stop and searches have increased steadily. In 1997/98, there were 7,970 section 60 stop and searches; increasing to 11,330 in 2000/01; to 45,600 in 2004/05; and to 53,250 in 2007/08 — a 19  per cent increase on the previous year.[6]

There is little research into the quality of local intelligence that is used to justify section 60 authorisations. There is also little regulation to ensure that the intelligence basis given for invoking section 60 meet legal standards (i.e. that there is a credible threat of serious violence in a defined area), or to see that the power is used consistently within and between forces. Civil rights advocates have raised increasing concern that in practice section 60 has become a useful police resource for responding to low-level disorder.[7]

An investigation conducted by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) into the use of section 60 stop and search powers in the West Midlands in 2007 confirmed activists’ concerns. The IPCC found that section 60 was being used inappropriately to deal with routine crime problems with no justifiable reason why normal police powers based on a reasonable suspicion were not being used. The IPCC Commissioner overseeing the investigation reported that:

  • We found no evidence - for example weapons actually seized or intelligence anticipating serious violence in this particular neighbourhood - justifying such an order… The police must not misuse powers such as section 60 in this way… Section 60 is an exceptional and highly intrusive power and it is not justifiable to use it for tackling a routine crime problem.[8]

Although section 60 stop and searches represent only a small fraction of the overall numbers of stop and searches conducted under various police powers, they have already increased significantly and this trend appears to be accelerating due to knife crime initiatives across the country. The prime example is the London Metropolitan Police’s Operation Blunt 2, which was launched in May 2008 as part of a high-profile initiative to tackle knife crime. Blunt 2 has relied on the application of section 60 powers in high-risk areas and the use airport style metal detectors (‘knife arches’), amongst others tactics. Figures for the first eight months of Operation Blunt 2 in London show that officers made 209,269 stop and searches predominantly aimed at teenagers and young men.[9]

Ministry of Justice data for 2007/08 shows that across the country, when police use their section 60 powers, they are 10.7 times more likely to stop and search black people than white people, while Asian people were 2.2 times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts.[10] It is not hard to determine why stop and searches conducted under the section 60 authority result in higher rates of disproportionality than PACE section 1 stop and searches. As Professor Ben Bowling states:

  • Wherever officers have the broadest discretion is where you find the greatest disproportionality and discrimination. Under section 60, police have the widest discretion, using their own beliefs about who is involved in crime, using their own stereotypes about who’s worth stopping, that’s where the problems in police culture affect the decisions that are taken… A power that was intended for narrow purposes is being used much more extensively against black and Asian communities.[11]

This dynamic appears likely to increase further under the pressures to address knife crime and youth violence. Media portrayals and public debates on these troubling issues are interwoven with subtle racialised images, which set the context for stop and search by stigmatizing minority youth, and identifying only poor and minority neighbourhoods as ‘high risk’ or ‘high crime’ areas. In this light, it is important to examine the impact and effectiveness of section 60 powers. In 2007/08, only 4  per cent of stops and searches conducted under section 60 led to an arrest - significantly lower than the 11  per cent arrest rate for stop and searches conducted under PACE section 1.[12] In the absence of well-defined grounds for suspicion, these searches are less effective. Furthermore, in focusing on an area rather than focusing on individuals where there are grounds for suspicion, they run the risk of simply displacing problems to other areas.

While the police have been quick to acknowledge that the tactic is ‘intrusive’ they argue that it has had an important impact in deterring knife crime and youth violence. Since Operation Blunt 2 began, the MPS have made 14,700 arrests and recovered 7,500 knives.[13] Yet, an analysis of recent figures shows little connection between numbers of section 60 stop and searches and levels of knife crimes in different London boroughs. Between April and October last year, police in Southwark conducted 9,437 section 60 stop and searches yet saw knife crime rise by 8.6 percent. In contract, there was a 25 percent reduction in knife crime is Islington where police conducted only 840 section 60 stop and searches.[14]

Few would disagree with section 60 powers being used in situations with a genuine risk of violence in a clearly delineated area for a short period of time. Beyond these circumstances, the powers given to the police under PACE section 1 provide an adequate tool that includes the safeguard of reasonable suspicion and local monitoring mechanisms. If police develop an over-reliance on section 60, it will have a long-term impact on the predominantly young black people who find themselves repeatedly stopped and searched. Without a well-defined standard of suspicion, searches are likely to take place for reasons that are unclear to the individuals being searched or the wider community. This could lead to the undermining of public confidence, just as happened under the old stop and search, or ‘sus’ laws, that were replaced by PACE. Sus laws were used for what is now described as ‘saturation policing’. In 1981, anger over ‘Swamp 81’ – a massive stop and search operation in Brixton – erupted in urban unrest in Brixton. Similar tactics used in other cities led to further outbreaks of public anger in Manchester, Liverpool and other areas of the West Midlands. PACE was introduced in the wake of this period. There is a real risk of similar alienation in response to section 60 and other stop and search powers being used today. If section 60 is used in a fashion that reintroduces saturation policing, it risks repeating this traumatic episode in the history of police-community relations in the UK and seriously setting back the important efforts that have been made to monitor and address disproportionality.

As increasing numbers of stop and search powers fall outside the safeguard of reasonable suspicion, including section 44 and schedule 7 terrorism stops and road traffic stops[15] we must learn lessons from the past. Powers should be used for the purposes they were intended for, and where police are given extraordinary powers, safeguards and local mechanisms for external accountability should go beyond what is required for section 1 PACE stops to ensure that communities can have confidence that powers are being used fairly and legitimately.


[1] Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, Code of Practice A (Amended 1st January 2009)
[2] David (2009)
[3] Travis (2009b)
[4] Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, Section 60.
[5] Knives Act 1997, section 6; Crime and Disorder Act 1998, section 25.
[6] Hand and Dodd (2009: 35)
[7] Sanders and Young (2007)
[8] Independent Police Complaints Commission (2007)
[9] Laville (2009)
[10] Ministry of Justice (2009: 29, 49, 205)
[11] Dodd (2003)
[12] Povey and Smith (2009: 35).
[13] There are large discrepancies in the figures quoted on arrests and knives seized during Operation Blunt 2. These figures are taken from Metropolitan Police Service (2009).
[14] Travis (2010a)
[15] Including: Section 163 Road Traffic Act 1988, Sections 44-47 Terrorisms Act 2000, Schedule 7 Terrorism Act 2000, Section 4 PACE (road checks) and sections 14 and 65 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (races and trespassory assemblies).

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