Last week Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper threw the Labour Party’s weight behind reform of stop and search, a process that appeared to have stalled.
In July 2013, the Home Office produced a consultation on stop and search and the Home Secretary said in the House of Commons that she would “come back to the House in the autumn … and make firmer proposals … on stop and search”. At the Conservative Party conference in September she stated that she would “announce changes in policy by the end of this year”. Since then there has been nothing forthcoming, with media reports that proposed reforms are being blocked by Downing Street.
Whether Yvette Cooper’s intervention will help to break the deadlock is debatable, but legislation and national policy change is not always necessary. Here are three achievable steps that could be taken immediately to improve the use of stop and search.
Firstly, the use of Section 60, which allows the use of stop and search without having to demonstrate reasonable suspicion, could be substantially reduced. Recent experience suggests that this can be achieved without changing the law. When the Metropolitan Police Service introduced a process under which authorising officers had to consult and explain their decision to a chief officer prior to authorisation there was a reduction in the use of the power by almost 90 per cent, with no associated impact on violent crime. This practice could be introduced in all forces.
Secondly, more training could be given to officers about how to conduct stop and search. Research suggests that the public does not object to the use of stop and search provided it is used fairly. Many of the concerns about stop and search therefore relate to the way in which it is carried out. Officers who treat an individual fairly and with respect inspire greater confidence and trust. The reverse is also true. Training, including in-service training, could therefore place more emphasis on improving officers’ interpersonal skills in handling such encounters.
Thirdly, the monitoring of stop and search could be beefed up. Changes introduced by the Home Office in 2011 meant that, while all stop and searches still need to be recorded, the number of fields an officer must fill out has now been reduced. Officers are no longer required to record, for example, details of the outcome of the search. This was a mistake. To ensure proportionate and fair use of the power it is essential that forces collect information to monitor how it is being usedtoenable them to act when there are problems. They do not need a Home Office diktat to do so. HMIC could make good use of this data when looking at stop and search as part of their new programme of annual assessments of all police forces.
These three changes wouldn’t solve all the problems with stop and search and they are not the only three changes that could or even should be made. But they could be brought in now, without the need for political wrangling or legislative change. Perhaps the police service should seize the initiative.
Read thePolice Foundation’sbriefing on stop and search.