The effects of increased transparency, participation and accountability in stop and search
Making information more accessible and open to public scrutiny is a crucial driver for increased transparency, participation and accountability. This is especially true for information that relates to issues that concern citizens’ rights or disproportionate outcomes for particular groups in society. In this respect, there are few issues in policing as contentious as the power to stop and search.
Stop and search
Stop and search originated with the ‘sus’ law, which gave officers the power to stop and search people on the basis of their suspicion alone. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) subsequently created a new general power to stop and search an individual or vehicle – this remains the most commonly used authority under which stop and search is conducted, accounting for almost all searches in 2017/18. The power under Section 1 of PACE is only to be exercised where an officer has reasonable suspicion that a person is in possession of prohibited articles.
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 also introduced the power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion. Section 60 allows a senior police officer who reasonably believes people may be carrying weapons in a localised area or ‘that incidents involving serious violence may take place’ to authorise other officers to carry out searches in that area without any requirement for reasonable suspicion for a period of 24 hours.
Stop and search is a highly intrusive power because it effectively detains an individual during a search, depriving them of their liberty. This is particularly controversial with respect to searches under s.60 that do not even require the officer to have reasonable grounds to suspect the individual is in possession of an illicit item. But by far the most controversial aspects of stop and search are its disproportionate use against people from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background and the limited evidence for its effectiveness in reducing crime.
Lord Scarman’s investigation into the 1981 Brixton riots specifically identified overuse of the historic ‘sus’ law as playing a causal role in the breakdown of relations between the police and ethnic minority communities. The unfair use of stop and search against people from ethnic minority communities was highlighted again by Lord Macpherson’s 1999 inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It made several key recommendations, including tighter recording of stops.
The recording requirements have changed over time, but the ethnicity of every person subjected to a stop and search should be recorded. These statistics are included in the annually published data on stop and search from the Home Office. Crucially, stop and search data is broken down by police force area, which allows us to calculate the likelihood of a BAME person being searched compared to a white person in each of the 43 police areas in England and Wales.
Critics of these statistical calculations argue they are undermined by the reliance on census data from 2011 and the fact that some areas on the country have very small BAME populations that – when combined with small numbers of searches – can distort disproportionality statistics. However, these arguments do not explain, for instance, why in Dorset a black person in 2015/16 was almost 20 times as likely to be searched as a white person, while in Durham (a comparable area in terms of a small BAME population and low overall usage of stop and search) a black person was actually less likely to be searched than a white person. Fast-forward two years to 2017/18 and the situation has changed little, with a black person in Dorset still over 16 times as likely to be searched as a white person. While other areas in the country have lower disproportionality rates, it remains the case that, on average, a BAME person is over four times as likely to be searched as a white person. For a black person, this disproportionality increases to over nine times as likely.
This localised data has aided the CJA in its campaign to reduce the disproportionate use of stop and search against BAME people by providing us with localised data with which to hold police forces and Police and Crime Commissioners to account. But in recent years the Home Office has also began to release extra data on stop and search that provides greater detail as to its claimed effectiveness.
A crucial aspect of the legitimacy of a search is whether the ‘outcome’ of a search, such as an arrest or a cannabis warning, is actually linked to the ‘reason’ that the officer conducted the search. For example, of the 80,000 drug searches conducted by the Metropolitan Police in 2017/18 (which formed 60 per cent of all searches by the Met), a third of searches resulted in a police outcome. In 83 per cent of these searches, the outcome was linked to the reason for the search, i.e. the officer reasonable suspicion that the individual in question was in possession of drugs.
However, the statistics on searches for weapons paint a very different picture when it comes to effectiveness. Of the 26,000 searches for weapons by the Metropolitan Police in 2017/18 (less than a fifth of total searches in London), 20 per cent resulted in an outcome. But of these 5,000 searches, over half produced an outcome that was not actually linked to the reason for the search – in other words, no weapon was found, but perhaps drugs were found or in some cases, a search may have escalated due to frustration on the part of the individual being searched and resulted in a community resolution or possibly even an arrest.
Overall, these statistics show that less than 10 per cent of searches for weapons by the Met Police in 2017/18 actually resulted in a weapon recovered. When looking at these searches in the context of all searches by the Met Police, this means that just two per cent of all searches conducted resulted in a weapon being found. These statistics are key to the debate about stop and search because of its claimed effectiveness to combat knife crime. However, the reality is that in 2017/18, there were 132,000 searches of people that did not result in a weapon being found.
Increased transparency around stop and search statistics is a welcome step in the right direction, but it is not sufficient to drive positive change in reducing disproportionate use of stop and search or increasing its effectiveness. There also need to be opportunities and processes for members of communities most affected by stop and search to participate in scrutiny of the power’s usage and hold the police to account.
A forthcoming briefing by the CJA explores the topic in detail by looking at the operation of Community Scrutiny Panels (CSPs) around England and Wales. CSPs should provide opportunities for members of the public to scrutinise police data on stop and search, including statistics on disproportionality, and other forms of information such as footage from Body Worn Video and individual stop and search records. Participation in this process should bring greater transparency and accountability to policing practice by making the police aware of community concerns and open to constructive criticism.
Following a survey of community scrutiny across England and Wales and interviews with a wide range of stakeholders, including police forces and CSPs, the CJA has developed four principles of good practice for CSPs. CSPs should be:
- Independent and empowered: Led by the community, acts as a ‘critical friend’, provides constructive challenge and influences change.
- Representative: Reflects the communities most affected by stop and search, stays dynamic by periodically reviewing and refreshing its membership and actively engages young people and BAME people in its work.
- Informed: Has effective and transparent access to a wide range of data and records on stop and search, including body worn video footage, and access to appropriate training and guidance.
- Open and visible: Promotes its work widely in the community, particularly with young people and ‘harder to reach’ groups, publishes summaries of meetings and outcomes, and is easily contactable by members of the public.
It is clear from our findings that many areas of the country do not currently fully adhere to these principles. For example, survey respondents revealed that over 30 per cent of CSPs in their areas do not currently have a non-police Chair and three quarters of respondents do not hold meetings that are open to the public. This echoes findings by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in 2017 that ‘Only a minority of forces had very effective and independent groups.’
Nevertheless, there are many areas of the country where CSPs are engaging with a wide range of community groups and increasing participation in their work. This type of proactive engagement is particularly crucial for young BAME people, who are disproportionately affected by stop and search. Polling has shown over a third of young BAME people have less trust in the police because of what they know about stop and search.
Transparency of information about stop and search and active participation in its scrutiny by communities most affected are important steps to making stop and search fairer and more effective. But the police also need to listen and learn from this constructive process to ensure it does not become a box-ticking exercise.
We were encouraged by examples where transparency around data and proactive participation by the community and the police is resulting in greater accountability around the use of stop and search. The CSP in Bedfordshire uses a traffic light system to ‘rate’ officers’ use of stop and search. Where a search is graded green, the officer is provided with positive feedback. If amber, the officer is given advice on how to improve. A red-graded search will be escalated to the Chief Inspector, the officer in question and the police force lead to provide direct accountability and management action. Feedback is provided at the next panel meeting.
In Northamptonshire, a ‘Reasonable Grounds Panel’ considers whether stop and search records meet standards. If the Panel finds there were no reasonable grounds for a search, the officer in question is informed and a process of escalating consequences ensues. In the first instance, the officer and their supervisor are offered training. In the second instance, this training becomes mandatory. In the third instance, the officer and the supervisor are suspended from using stop and search until a specific development plan has been completed.
The examples in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire provide a compelling case for the importance of transparency, participation and accountability in the use of intrusive policing powers like stop and search.
Stop and search is an instructive example of how open government initiatives to provide more data on important issues that affect citizens’ rights can help to defend those rights. We are now able to better understand how stop and search is used disproportionately against BAME people and how its use actually translates into effective outcomes.
However, the growing level of disproportionality and the lack of public awareness about its actual effectiveness means there is still much more to be done at national and local levels to turn transparency into action. CSPs can provide an important vehicle for change by engaging with members of the public to participate in the scrutiny of stop and search and hold the police to account. We encourage the Home Office and local Police and Crime Commissioners to consider the value that community scrutiny can bring to enhancing police/community relations, not just around stop and search but across a range of other policing issues, and to provide more consistent support and guidance to these initiatives.