Lack of data means doubts remain over efficacy of Stop and Search

29 March 2016

The Home Secretary, Theresa May’s recent modifications to the stop and search recording regime are to be welcomed, but they need to be more comprehensive in order to be considered an effective reform. 

Without knowing the real numbers behind stop and search, we are in the dark as to whether stop and search is an effective policing tool, or whether the powers are being arbitrarily used and applied.  Unless and until there is a more comprehensive system of recording and publishing the data, it is difficult for the Police, or politicians, to be held to account.

The Home Secretary’s latest proposal is to bring stop and searches executed on drivers within the recording regime.  Hitherto, those stopped and searched under the Road Traffic Act 1988 had fallen outside the recording regime, and as a consequence, we have been given an incomplete impression of the statistics.  This measure is to be lauded, as it will lead to a more comprehensive set of data.  Whilst it is not possible to know, it may be surmised that when stops conducted under the auspices of the Road Traffic Act 1988 are taken into account, this may lead to an increase in the total number of stops - and a reduction in the resultant arrest rate.

The stop and search regime contains powers that may be exercised by the Police in order to detain and search a person.  There are a number of statutory powers that permit this.  Broadly, there are two types of power: those that require reasonable suspicion of the commission of an offence; and those that do not. It is easy to overlook the significance of the exercise of this power.  After all, there is a perception that it scarcely happens in some of the more rural or remote parts of the country.  For some, there remains a lingering doubt that perhaps there is no smoke without fire.  It is also sometimes thought that being stopped by a police officer and asked a few questions is hardly an intrusion on one’s liberty, if there is nothing to hide.

However, during the year ending 31 March 2015, there were in excess of 541,000 stops conducted by the Police across the country and only 14% of those stops led to an arrest.  More to the point, for those individuals who are stopped, they are not just numbers.  Rather, these numbers are people who are required to be detained by Police and who have their liberty infringed, perhaps only briefly.  Nevertheless, being stopped is an invidious experience, even for those who are just going about their daily lives - and have nothing to hide.  Even when the Police exercise the power the discretion, diligence and courtesy that one would expect, it can be an uncomfortable and embarrassing experience for the subject of the search.  At its worst, stop and search can and does amount to an arbitrary exercise of power and an unnecessary deprivation of liberty.  This can be an affront to the liberty of the individual and can lead to an undermining in the confidence of the Police.  Of this, the Home Secretary appears to be aware.
To date, Teresa May has implemented measures to increase accountability and transparency.  These have included the implementation of the “Best use of Stop and Search Scheme” as well as her outspoken warnings to police forces that unless their powers are used more sparingly, she will take further action.  Indeed, according to the Home Office statistics during the present Home Secretary’s term in office, the number of stops has declined, but the percentage of resultant arrests has increased. 

Yet, the reforms have not been universally popular and proponents of stop and search maintain that it is a crucial and effective method of detecting and preventing crime.  On the other hand, those who are critical of the stop and search regime point to the sometimes arbitrary and irrational nature of stops, the targeting of certain groups of people and the arrests for incidental offences that arise when stop and search goes wrong. 

The problem is that in order to effectively analyse the competing arguments, we require more transparent data.  Whilst the data set has improved, it remains incomplete and therefore, potentially, misleading.
In the absence of reliable and transparent data, we are left with numbers that can be adapted for policing or political ends.

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