Stop and search: Tactical bias is affecting police legitimacy

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Stop and search: Tactical bias is affecting police legitimacy

In her speech at the recent Conservative Party Annual Conference, the Home Secretary made the reform of stop and search a key priority for police forces, insisting that legislation will be introduced if stop and search does not become more targeted, with improved stop-to-arrest ratios. On, commenters responded that these reforms “pander to those who carry drugs and weapons” and that the Home Secretary has “effectively called every copper a racist”.

I think the Home Secretary is right to challenge forces on the way they use stop and search, but that the case can be made more clearly and in a way that moves the debate away from presumed accusations of and defensiveness about racism and puts it firmly in the realm of police effectiveness.

Here the problem can be understood as arising from the tactical bias in policing, particularly as a consequence of performance management timescales, and the frequently adversarial approach taken to policing many young people.

A few years ago a chief police officer, apparently keen to see faster progress towards performance targets, promoted the slogan “tactics deliver, strategy delays”. The implication was that strategy is a barrier to progress. At the time I was conducting research in a Borough Command Unit (BCU) in the same force where youth violence was particularly high and successive local commanders had made an explicit commitment to increase the use of stop and search in response.

Section 60 powers were authorised BCU-wide on two out of every three days in 2011, often justified by a single robbery. Public order units were routinely deployed to “find the grounds” to stop and search young men, “get hands in pockets” and exploit every opportunity to “disrupt” presumed “nominals”.

The focus was on action. When a group of local youths who had reportedly intimidated a PCSO were humiliated by public order officers, the fact was celebrated in the local police station.

When I enquired about whether the community from which the young men were drawn had been engaged with I was confidently told that there was no such community. There had been for at least 20 years. Public confidence in the police, as measured by robust surveys, was especially low.

At around the same time, a senior detective seconded from a specialist gangs unit was observed expressing his exasperation at the fact that no one from the local community had come forward with information about an attempted murder in which a young man had been stabbed.

I was reminded of a public meeting that I attended in another part of the same city in 2003, following three murders.

They included a young man who had been shot in broad daylight on an estate, the scene overlooked by more than 200 flats. The senior officers present appealed to the community to come forward with information about the perpetrator but none did, despite his identity being widely known. It was eventually revealed at the victim’s funeral but no conviction ever resulted. People “didn’t talk to the police” in that area.

Here’s the crunch: the young men (predominantly) being stopped and searched at “every opportunity” are very often the same people who know who did what to whom, when, and why.

Tactical focus

Some are perpetrators, some victims, some will be both at various times, many will be neither (a young law graduate who worked on a research project with me had been stopped more than 20 times in his car in only a few years, to no policing or public safety gain).

They can and should be part of the solution to youth violence, but the short-term tactical focus on action labels them as the problem and narrowly focuses on “denying the streets” to those few who would carry weapons to the exclusion of other considerations. In particular, insufficient attention is given to the strategic picture.

The risk with a stop and search led approach making the tactic the strategy is that it cuts off the police nose to spite its face. While focusing on short-term deterrence, longer term legitimacy is eroded. Young people don’t want to engage with the police on any level including if they are victimised (many knife carriers do so out of fear).

They also don’t want to join the police. And so a cycle becomes established: legitimacy is eroded, young people will not engage or share intelligence, without intelligence stop and search is used bluntly, arrest rates and other positive results remain low, and so on. Despite honourable intentions policing thereby risks becoming part of the very problem it is trying to address.

The solutions are not simple, but I think hinge on the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of young people. With legitimacy, policing can be by consent and the potential for increased co-operation and effectiveness is opened up. Without it, policing becomes adversarial and the authority of police officers can only be asserted through force.

The BCU mentioned above was compelled by edict to change the way it dealt with gang members, and the most notable innovation saw detectives sitting down with the young people concerned and their families, building relationships at a personal level and offering support to help them access education, work and accommodation, while importantly delivering strong messages about enforcement.

Within a matter of weeks the gang member assessed as presenting the highest risk in the BCU had enrolled in a work-related training programme and moved to another part of the city. More generally, the approach allowed credible messages about enforcement to be delivered by officers who engaged with young people on a personal level, and engendered a sense that officers had credible motives: to reduce violence and thereby make all young people safer.

The Police Foundation report Policing Young Adults and the related PCC briefing discuss these issues in some detail.

Gavin Hales,Deputy Director, The Police Foundation

This blog was originally published on 17 October 2014 by Police Oracle.