Police Stop and Search: what's the problem?

9 July 2013

This article was updated on 11 July 2013

The Home Secretary Theresa May recently announced that the government would be reviewing the use of stop and search powers by police forces across the country, claiming that questions needed to be answered about "whether stop and search is always used appropriately."

Two areas in particular have been highlighted as showing failings in the current system. The Daily Mail last week when trailing the announcement claimed that there were "one million 'pointless' stop and search checks" this year.

Meanwhile, Mrs May herself pointed to the disproportionate number of black people who are subject to searches, claiming that you are seven times more likely to be stopped by police if you are black.

So what do we know about the situation as it stands?

What is stop and search?

The term stop and search is broadly used to refer to the power the police has to search a person or vehicle they believe likely to have been involved in a crime, although these powers are actually spread across different laws. They are:

  1. Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984
  2. Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
  3. Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000
  4. Section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
  5. Section 47 of the Firearms Act 1968

For a stop and search to be reasonable and lawful, an officer must have reasonable grounds for suspicion that someone is in possession of a stolen or prohibited item (such as a firearm or illicit drugs).

Obviously 'reasonable grounds' varies depending on the situation, but the guidelines that exist for police officers do set out some broad rules:

  1. Needs an objective basis for the specific suspicion based on facts or intelligence, "normally" this has to be accurate and current, or:
  2. Should be based on the observed behaviour of a person
  3. Cannot be based on personal factors, only on intelligence about or specific behaviour by the person in question (so physical appearance can't be used)
  4. Cannot be based on generalisations or stereotypes about certain groups of people being more likely to engage in criminal activity

Are there a million "pointless" stop and search checks?

The Mail's headline draws on these same Ministry of Justice statistics, which report that in 2011/12 there were 1.2 million stop and search checks, of which 107,068 resulted in an arrest.

If we assume the remaining 1.1 million which didn't result in an arrest were "pointless" the claim can be substantiated. But is this a fair assumption to make?

Taken literally, it's a surprising claim. If every stop and search resulted in an arrest, it's not clear what the police would be learning from the search. If a search is about discovering whether there is anything to be found, presumably it's expected that some of the time the answer is no.

The value of stop and search more generally is a contentious topic, but it's worth pointing out as the Police Federation does in its briefing on the topic that advocates of the use of stop and search argue that the power also helps deter crime, although as the House of Commons Library has summarised, Home Office research has generally suggested that the impact is minor.

We can also see from the Ministry of Justice figures that while the use of stop and search powers has grown in recent years, the proportion resulting in arrests has fallen.

Does stop and search disproportionately target black people?

We looked at the figure used by the Home Secretary - that someone who is black is seven times more likely to feel the force of these powers - last year, and found that Mrs May is correct.

In fact, while the "disproportionality ratio" is 7:1 across all three Acts which sanction stop and search, even greater disparities can be reached if we look in detail at each Act and at the individual force level.

In fact, as we saw last year, in Gloucestershire, black people are 177 times more likely to be stopped, although because of the volatility involved in breaking down the statistics this way, whether or not this tells us anything is dubious.

Is stop and search effective at cutting crime?

This is really the million dollar question when it comes to assessing whether or not the laws are doing what they're ultimately intended to do.

Until recently, and perhaps surprisingly, there's been little to no research into the effectiveness of stop and search, but HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) today released a report assessing the use of the powers.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to determine how 'successful' the powers are. While it's tempting to take the 9% arrest rate in 2011/12 as an indicator, HMIC note that an arrest isn't necessarily a success, nor is a failure to uncover any wrongdoing necessarily a failure.

Offenders could, for instance, be arrested even if they're found to be empty of stolen or prohibited goods because they might react violently to officers or be wanted for another offence. On the flipside, failing to uncover wrongdoing could be regarded as a success if, without the stop and search powers in place, the person under suspicion would otherwise have been arrested unecessarily.

The finding that made headlines however was that, according to the Daily Mail, "a quarter of police stop and searches are illegal". Their source is obvious; one of HMIC's main findings was that:

"Of the 8,783 stop and search records we examined, 27% did not include sufficient grounds to justify the lawful use of the power"

But does this mean that the law is being broken is 27% of cases? HMIC aren't as sure as the Mail seem to be that this always constitutes illegality:

"This does not necessarily mean that all those searches were unlawful and carried out without the required grounds."

Why? HMIC explained to Full Fact that while failing to record sufficient grounds was a breach of the Code of Practice for stop and search, the law itself only concerns the actual use of the power, rather than obedience to any such code. So while their evidence tells us that over a quarter of cases breach official guidelines, they can't tell us for certain whether this many powers were actually used unlawfully at the time they were executed.

So we shouldn't necessarily be so quick to judge the scale of illegal practices in the police's use of stop and search when the hard evidence simply isn't there.

Update (11 July 2013)

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and Firearms Act 1968 were previously ommitted from the list of legislation under which stop and search can be lawful.

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