In Focus: Stop and Search

Nick Glynn is a serving police inspector.  He has been a police officer for 29 years and leads the College of Policing's work on improving stop and search.

​Stop and search has been a source of tension between the police service and people from black and ethnic minority communities for decades. Black people are up to six times more likely to be subject to stop and search than their white counterparts. For Asian people the rate is double that for white people. It is no surprise that the power has created such resentment.

I've been searched many times and in many places across the country while off duty in my 29 years as a police officer and I know that if you have done nothing wrong, it is at best annoying and at worst scary and intimidating. If it happens a lot, staying calm can be difficult. Even when the searching officer knows that I am a fellow police officer, I have been treated badly with officers failing to provide reasons for the search, failing to explain my rights and on the worst occasions behaving rudely and aggressively.

In my professional experience, I know that the vast majority of police officers do their job with integrity and progress has been made since the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report in 1999, which found the Metropolitan Police Service to be institutionally racist. Yet the numbers back up my personal experience. Young men, professors, musicians and people such as Team GB athletes are being stopped and searched across the country at such a frequency that those affected have lost count. The ripple effect from an individual to their family and friends should not be understated. After many years of trying, there is still much more the service needs to do in order to get our use and targeting of stop and search right.

The Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme, which all police forces in England and Wales committed to last month, is a step in the right direction. We will now record the outcome of searches in more detail to show whether there is a link between what the officer was searching for and the eventual outcome. While some will worry about placing an additional burden on police officers, there is a strong case for doing so, particularly as Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) reported last year that of the 8,783 stop and search records they examined, 27 per cent did not include sufficient grounds to justify the lawful use of the power. If the sample is representative, over 270,000 stop searches a year could be unlawful, which cannot be acceptable if we are 'policing by consent'.

Approaches like those in Haringey in north London, where police work with a stop and search monitoring group, show that greater community involvement can bring benefits. Police officers become more aware of the impact that poor use of stop and search can have and the quality and targeting of searches tends to improve. Providing opportunities to members of the local community to accompany officers on patrol where they may see stop and search will also have a secondary benefit in helping the public understand the many risks that officers face every day in order to keep communities safe. It can also bring officers closer to the people they serve and this familiarity with people from different backgrounds can dispel myths and the unnecessary fear that can sometimes exist.

We also have to look at whether unconscious bias - where people are influenced by their hidden thoughts and feelings about others - is playing a part in affecting officers' use of stop and search. The College of Policing has begun work with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to help us examine this as part of our wider work to review and develop the evidence-base, training and guidance on stop and search.

This will help to ensure that police officers at every level in the service - including those at senior ranks overseeing the use of the power - are equipped with the right knowledge and skills to conduct stop and search effectively, proportionately and fairly.

Dissatisfaction with the power - and therefore the police - has been caused by thousands of poorly executed, badly targeted and, in some cases, unlawful stop and searches over many years. It will take time and investment to reverse the damage and resentment that they have caused.

As police officers, we aim to protect communities, not to alienate them and it is in everyone's interest to get stop and search right - it helps us fight crime, catch criminals and on a practical level, substantiate or refute our suspicions without the need to arrest someone and the lengthy detention that entails. The challenge for policing is to confront current stop and search practices and acknowledge that we need to change the way we use the powers. It does mean using them less, ensuring that use is targeted on key priorities and with a higher rate of positive outcomes. It means police officers, supervisors and police leaders taking responsibility for stop and search in the long term, not just for now. The prize on offer is huge. When people have greater confidence in the police we can expect an increase in those willing to come forward as victims and witnesses, an increase in those joining the service from diverse backgrounds and, overall a safer community for everyone.

This article appears in the September 2014 edition of our newsletter - why not subscribe?

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