Utmost discretion: deploying stop and search

Blog post

Utmost discretion: deploying stop and search

Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe’s declaration that he intends to overhaul stop and search in London is welcome news. It has long been recognised that policing by consent is crucial to maintaining public cooperation, and given the number of encounters the public has with the police through stop and search there were well over one million searches conducted in 2009/10 it is vitally important that the police get it right.

One of the most contentious aspects of stop and search has been its disproportionate use on people from ethnic minorities. In 2009/10, black people were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and Asian people twice as likely, while according to LSE research black people are nearly 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people under Section 60 powers. Whether this level of disproportionality amounts to racial discrimination is of course open to question. Other factors may be at play, such as the available population for searching, and age, employment and exclusion from school also affect the likelihood of being stopped and searched. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that the disproportionate use of stop and search on black and ethnic minority communities is perceived by them as racially motivated and therefore needs to be taken very seriously, whether or not there is any racist intent.

There’s certainly no lack of guidance on stop and search. The Association of Chief Police Officers notes that in forces with lower levels of disproportionality, force policy explicitly states that an officer’s performance will not be assessed on the number of stops and searches they have performed, but on the outcomes and quality of their searches.

The National Police Improvement Agency suggests that greater attention should be placed on maximising the quality of arrests and that searches should therefore focus on, for example, prolific offenders to ensure the most effective use of resources. The ACPO Stop and Search manual encourages the police to take note of any legitimate stop and search complaints they receive and to use this information to improve operational practice.

And the Independent Police Complaints Commission advises local police commanders to inform communities about how stop and search is being used and give the public the opportunity to raise concerns about the tactic. This seems eminently sensible given that, according to research, the public does not wholly object to the use of stop and search provided it is used fairly and properly.

There is no simple solution to how to best to deploy the tactic of stop and search. What is clear, however, is that if the police are to better target their searches it is important that they get to know the local communities that they serve. In the longer term, a force where officers are representative of the local population would seem to be a sensible way forward. But in the shorter term the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners presents a real opportunity for forces to reach decisions based on local concerns and priorities, although it would be best if these could encompass how policing is carried out and not just what the police do.

This blog entry first appeared in Policing Today.