22 June 2015

Definition of a fair and effective stop and search encounter

This definition has been subject to broad consultation with police officers, staff, members of the public, stakeholders, campaign and monitoring groups.

A stop and search is most likely to be fair and effective when:

  • the search was a justified and lawful use of the power that stands up to public scrutiny;
  • the officer genuinely believes the person has an item in their possession
  • the member of the public understands why they have been searched and feels that they have been treated with respect;
  • the search was necessary and was the least intrusive method a police officer could use to establish whether a member of the public has a prohibited article or an item for use in crime with them and
    more often than not the item is found. 

Police officers meet, chat and informally advise members of the public thousands of times every day.
This is the nature of effective community policing and highlights our tradition of policing by public consent.

There is a distinction to be made between an informal chat and where police officers are seeking information about a person’s whereabouts, intentions or where the officer suspects the person is, has been or is about to be involved in unlawful activity. The generic name for these encounters is stop and search, even where a physical search doesn’t actually take place. The public tend to include traffic stops in this same category.

The primary purpose of stop and search powers is to enable officers to allay or confirm suspicions about individuals carrying unlawful items, without exercising their power of arrest, where the officer has reasonable grounds for carrying out a search.

The primary role of the police is to uphold the law and maintain the Queen’s peace. Unfair, unlawful or unnecessary stop searches make this task harder with one of the direct consequences being a reduction in public trust and police legitimacy, and people being more likely to break the law and less willing to cooperate with the police.[1] It also has an adverse impact for the establishment of a Police Service that is reflective of the people it serves.

All stops and searches must be carried out in line with the rules set out in Code A of the Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and in accordance with the principles provided by the Police Code of Ethics: accountability, fairness, honesty, integrity, leadership, objectivity, openness, respect and selflessness. All 44 police forces in England and Wales have voluntarily signed up to the Home Office Best Use of Stop & Search Scheme, agreeing to provide more accountability around data recording, raising the level of authority required for ‘no suspicion’ stop search powers (Section 60). They have also committed to providing more transparency regarding community scrutiny of complaints and provide opportunities for members of the public to observe police patrol activity on force ‘ride-along’ schemes. 

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