The current stop and search laws were introduced as part of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). They arose out of the criticism of the police’s previous use of the ‘sus laws’ (Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824) which were a key feature and motivating factor behind the Brixton Uprisings/Riots and other large-scale urban disorders that occurred elsewhere in England, including, Tottenham (London), Handsworth (Birmingham) and Toxteth (Liverpool) in 1985.
PACE and the associated Code of Practice (Code A) contains specific provisions as to how the power should and shouldn’t be used. Stop and search was designed to allow police officers to search those suspected of possessing stolen property, weapons or drugs without arresting them
Whilst stop and search is a preventative tool as well as enabling the detection of some offences, its use has always been controversial particularly amongst Black and Asian communities where the seemingly disproportionate use of the power, which yields a very low ‘hit rate’, has created decades of resentment and ill-feeling towards the police.
There has been a big increase in the use of stop search powers since the beginning of 2000. This was augmented by the increasing use of Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Public Order Act 1994 (CJPOA) and Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (repealed and replaced by section 47A of the Act). Both powers were used extensively and whilst Section 44 was replaced, section 60 CJPOA is still a controversial power and currently subject to legal challenge.
In 2010 the Equality and Human Rights Commission published its report “Stop and Think” into the use of stop search and highlighted concerns about excessive use and its disproportionate use against ethnic minorities. It focussed particularly on the activity of 10 forces and engaged in a more formal sense with five of them. Two forces, Leicestershire and Thames Valley, entered into formal agreements with the EHRC and the EHRC stopped short of taking formal legal action, which resulted in improvements in both forces. The EHRC reported again in 2012 in “Stop and Think Again”, but still expressed similar concerns in other force areas.
The summer riots of 2011 once again focused attention on the way police use stop and search powers and in 2012 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) inspected all forces on stop and search. HMIC made 10 recommendations, published in July 2013 in the report “Stop and Search Powers: Are the Police Using Them Effectively?”
In summer 2013 the Home Office commissioned a public consultation which received a significant number of responses. The Home Secretary, Theresa May MP, presented her findings to Parliament in April 2014, making 13 recommendations. In her announcement to Parliament the Home Secretary said:
“The proposals I have outlined today amount to a comprehensive package of reform. I believe they should contribute to a significant reduction in the overall use of stop and search, better and more intelligence-led stop-and-search, and improved stop-to-arrest ratios. But I want to make myself absolutely clear: if the numbers do not come down, if stop-and-search does not become more targeted, if those stop-to-arrest ratios do not improve considerably, the Government will return with primary legislation to make those things happen, because nobody wins when stop-and-search is misapplied. It is a waste of police time. It is unfair, especially to young, black men. It is bad for public confidence in the police.”
In August 2014 the Home Office Best Use of Stop Search Scheme was adopted by all 43 geographical police forces. All forces agreed to improve data collection, raise the bar for Section 60 authorisations, introduce lay observation facilities and set up a community complaints trigger for stop search complaints.