Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Police powers to stop and search – a consultation

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The Government is currently engaged in a delicately choreographed exercise relating to the use by the police of their power to stop and search people.

Following the widespread riots that swept London and other major cities in the summer of 2011, there arose claims that one of the reasons why there was considerable distrust in many communities – especially ethnic minority communities – with the police arose from the use of stop and search powers. As a consequence,  in December 2011 the Home Secretary commissioned Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) to carry out an inspection into the use of stop and search legislation  in all 43 Home Office funded forces in England and Wales.

At the beginning of July 2013, the Home Secretary announced that she wanted to hold a consultation on the use of these power. There was no suggestion that the powers would be abolished. But the consultation was designed to get views from the public about how they should be used.

Just a few days later, HMIC published its report. it is very critical of police practice in this area. The headline conclusions, drawn from the Press Release, are:

Over a million stop and search encounters have been recorded every year since 2006; but in 2011/12 only 9% led to arrests. The police use of stop and search powers has been cited as a key concern for police legitimacy and public trust in most of the major public inquiries into policing since the 1970s. While there is much public debate about the disproportionate use of the powers on black and minority ethnic people, there has to date been surprisingly little attention paid – by either the police service or the public – to how effective the use of stop and search powers is in preventing and detecting crime.

The inspection, which included a public survey of over 19,000 people found that:

  • the majority of forces (30) had not developed an understanding of how to use the powers of stop and search so that they are effective in preventing and detecting crime, with too many forces not collecting sufficient information to assess whether or not the use of the powers had been effective;
  • 27% of the 8,783 stop and search records examined by HMIC did not include sufficient grounds to justify the lawful use of the power. The reasons for this include: poor understanding amongst officers about what constitutes the ‘reasonable grounds’ needed to justify a search, poor supervision, and an absence of direction and oversight by senior officers;
  • there is high public support for the use of these powers, but this support diminishes when there is a perception that the police are ‘overusing’ them; and
  • half of forces did nothing to understand the impact that stop and search had on communities, and less than half complied with the requirements of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 code of practice to make arrangements for stop and search records to be scrutinised by the public.

When all findings are considered, HMIC concludes that the priority chief officers give to improving the use of stop and search powers has slipped since the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report in 1999.

Notwithstanding these general findings, the report gives examples which show that use of stop and search powers has the potential to play an important role in the way the police prevent crime and catch criminals, whilst at the same time preventing unnecessary arrests. The proactive use of stop and search powers can lead to serious crimes being prevented and detected:

  • East. Arrest of a predatory paedophile after police officers on routine patrol found a car with blacked-out windows parked in suspicious circumstances on an industrial estate. The driver tried to distract them from looking in the vehicle, which aroused further suspicion and the officers decided to search it, finding a 12-year-old girl who had been groomed for sex through social media. The offender was convicted and received a 17-year prison sentence.
  • North East. Whilst officers were dealing with a collision on a motorway, they smelled cannabis in one of the vehicles and conducted a search of the car and the occupants, finding a large quantity of cannabis in bags and suitcases. Further enquiries led to a further seizure of approximately £400,000 worth of cannabis, and more arrests were made. The people involved were part of an organised group suspected of committing crime nationally.
  • North. Routine patrol officers checked a car that was shown on police computer systems as associated with drug misuse. The officers’ suspicion was raised on speaking to the occupants and they conducted a search, which led to finding a large suitcase containing many unsealed bottles of liquid labelled as shampoo, which were subsequently found to contain over 30 kilos of high purity amphetamine, with an estimated street value in excess of £3 million.

The Government’s consultation on stop and search continues until 24 September 2013. Announcements on the outcomes of the consultation will appear later in the year.

All the information about the HMIC report is available at http://www.hmic.gov.uk/publication/stop-and-search-powers-20130709/
. You can follow the links to the press release, the full report and findings from individual police forces.

Details of the Home Office consultation is at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/stop-and-search

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Written by lwtmp

August 28, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Posted in Chapter 5

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