9 December 2015

New book addresses controversial police powers and accountability

Alice Roberti's avatar

Rebekah Delsol and Mike Shiner analyse stop and search issues going right to the heart of policing

Photo by Courtesy of Nick Glynn

The recently released ‘Stop and Search: the Anatomy of a Police Power’ provides a compelling and well-rounded analysis of the issues around the power that daily allows officers to invade an individual’s privacy and to intrude into people’s liberty. Academics and renowned criminologists have contributed to the book’s eight chapters, covering issues ranging from police racism and the economic case for stop and search to counter terrorism policing. The book launch, hosted by the LSE on 26 November, saw discussions by Emeritus Professor Robert Reiner, Chief Superintendent Victor Olisa and the book’s editors and contributors.

Robert Reiner, one of the pioneers in the development of research on policing since the 1970s, has defined it ‘timely, stimulating and often inspiring’ and argued that it goes right to the heart of policing in an interesting historical period, when serious attempts to reform are being carried out by the Home Office.

Such attempts though are not new and through a historical perspective that goes back even before the existence of the legal power, starting from the patrolling of poor areas in the 19th century or the operations to control black youth in the 1970s,passing through the Brixton riots in 1981 and the English riots linked to Mark Duggan shooting in 2011, it is clear that excessive power misuses have periodically led to clashes between communities and the police. Consequently, reform attempts such as Scarman Report, 1984 PACE and Stephen Lawrence Inquiry made a series of recommendations, it is unfortunate many are still relevant today.

With several reform attempts failing, and the police standing steadfast in the belief stop and search is a vital tool to fight crime – even if lacking the evidence to prove its effectiveness – the question has to be raised: ‘What are the costs and what are the benefits?’

According to Rebekah Delsol, author of the book’s chapter on this issue, the costs simply outweigh benefits. While stop and search may have some intelligence-gathering benefits, it plays a minor role in detecting offenders and reduces ‘disruptable’ crime by just 0.2%. Neither does the power act as a deterrent: there is no consistent correlation between the number of stops and searches and crime levels, be it knife crime or drug offences.

Chief Superintendent Victor Olisa’s point of view, shared at the launch, importantly considers prevention as a benefit of the constructive work of detection and communication with citizens. But how do you calculate prevention as a measure of effectiveness? Conversely, the potential costs are easily measurable. Amongst others, an opportunity cost Delsol defines is that police officers’ time could be invested in effective alternatives like evidence-based policing. Additionally, the ethnic disproportionality rates, albeit decreased, are still high and the fact that 86% of the searches do not result in arrests inevitably leads to the frustration and loss of trust of impacted communities.

This analysis makes the need for regulation of the power very clear as procedural justice would ensure cooperation from the community, which means more positive results for police. But it obviously sounds easier than it actually is, how do we stem the level of discretion of front line officers since it is a necessary part of policing?

Talking about regulation, Mike Shiner explained on one hand a forward looking policy intervention that ensures officers comply with certain standards of behaviour, on the other hand a remedial procedure that provides redress when things go wrong. However his analysis of their reactions to Scarman Report and Lawrence Inquiry detected mainly resistance and denial, questioning the effectiveness of such remedial procedures. It is clear that ‘police cannot be relied upon to ensure robust regulation themselves, yet are likely to resist and subvert external efforts to this end’.

Change is not easy at a policy level, but apparently not at a practical level either. Dr Olisa conceded that Chief Officers are not interested in the issue because they consider stop and search exclusively an operational activity but did highlight that the risk of being labelled as racist pushed the police to self-reflection and self-regulation.

One possible way forward would be to realise that police cannot be understood narrowly as a ‘force’ as they should be considered as a ‘service’ instead. According to Professor Reiner, ‘cutting crime’ as the sole task of the police is highly misleading as most police work is order maintenance. Understanding this fundamental difference could contribute to eradicating abuses of power as a tool of law enforcement.

This books certainly helps to better address these issues by suggesting new approaches. At the event Ben Bowling, one of the book’s contributors, suggested the transnational one. Stop and search powers extend beyond national borders and a globalised ‘suspect population’ has recently emerged, accompanied by enhanced powers to control it. This approach allows us to compare multiple jurisdictions and to question the links between them, detecting similarities and identifying key issues to tackle the problem.

The analysis transpired from the book launch is clear, the way these powers are used is simply not good enough and more work needs to be done. Despite recent improvement in the use of stop and search, the cyclical nature of stop and search reform teaches that change is strongly related to political leadership and improvement will not be final until systemic change, which resists political agendas, will be achieved.