Policing with stop and search: To be continued?
With the proposed increase of police powers under stop and search becoming a key talking point of the upcoming election, how effective are these powers and could they already be doing more harm than good?
The vast majority of stop and searches take place under section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984. This power requires a police officer to have reasonable suspicion that the individual is in possession of an item in a category they are looking for, for example, offensive weapons, articles to cause criminal damage or fireworks.
However, the introduction of the 'section 60' stop and search powers (s.60 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act) meant that a senior police officer could authorise a search without reasonable suspicion, provided that the search takes place in a defined area and with the purpose of preventing serious violence or finding weapons after an incident. This means that anyone who happens to be in that area can be stopped and searched without being under any personal suspicion. These powers were intended to 'empower' police to crack down on crime, especially knife crime.
How successful these s.60 and PACE stop and search powers have actually been over the years is a topic of debate. Although overall, stop and search has been gradually declining, between 2018 and 2019 the number of stop and searches under PACE alone rose by 30% from the previous year, with the number of stop and searches conducted under s.60 increasing by a staggering 424%. The rate of arrests on the other hand (i.e. the proportion of arrests to stops) for all stop and searches fell from 17% to 16% in the last year. This indicates that the increase in powers under s.60 is not having the effect on arrest rates that they were supposedly put in place for.
Although stop and search has often been associated with clamping down on knife crime, the vast majority of 'reasons' given for a stop and search is related to suspicion of possession of drugs which accounts for 61% of all searches (under s.23 Misuse of Drugs Act) Therefore a large proportion of the arrest rate is likely to be closely tied to arrests for drug possession, rather than possession of an offensive weapon. Tackling knife crime has seen success with community projects such as knife amnesty bins, such as the Binning Knifes Saves Lives initiative set up by residents in East London.
The impact of these powers on community relations with the police is devastating. 73% of s.60 searches in England and Wales were carried out by the Metropolitan Police, meaning the rates of stop and search are much higher in London than elsewhere in England and Wales. Lambeth, Westminster, Newham and Southwark have the highest proportion of stop and searches. This means that particular communities are getting repeatedly and consistently targeted with these powers. Black people in London were stopped and searched under PACE almost 4.3 times more than white people in 2018/19, with the disparity increasing under s.60 stop and searches to 11 times more. This has the widely reported impact of mistrust and frustration towards the police from the public, further exacerbating problems with identifying and tackling crime.
Although overall stop and searches have been reducing over the years, there were still 280,000 stop and searches in 2017/18. Even if this decline was to continue, the damage caused by these methods to the relationships between the police and the communities they serve will likely take much longer to subside. Increasing these powers further to prevent knife crime in the future is questionable given the long and complicated history of this controversial power.
You can find more information about the use of stop and search at the website stopwatch found here http://www.stop-watch.org/.
If you believe the police searched you without reasonable grounds for suspicion, if you think that you may have been discriminated against based on any of the above or if you believe the police have acted unlawfully, you may be able to make a complaint or bring legal proceedings against them.
Our expert team of police action, civil liberties and human rights lawyers and solicitors are acknowledged as leaders in this field. They are always happy to discuss your concerns about an incident involving the police. Feel free to call them on 0207 632 4300