18 September 2013

Police and Crime Commissioners Out of Touch on Stop and Search

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The Home Office consultation on Stop and Search is coming to a close next week, but what have the Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) had to say on the subject? StopWatch intern, Tarik de Vries, analysed the Policing Plans for all forty-two commissioners to reveal that few have engaged with the issue.

When Home Secretary Theresa May announced a public consultation on police powers to stop and search people she began by recognizing that black people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people  - a fact she described as unsustainable and undermining public confidence. Not only is stop and search disproportionate – it is also ineffective and wastes police time. There are over 1.2 million stop and searches each year - but only 9 percent lead to an arrest. May noted that “it is time to get it right on stop and search.”

But what have the Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) had to say on stop and search? Surprisingly little. Only seven out of forty-two PCCs (including MOPAC)  mention stop and search in their policing plans, which form the core of their policing strategy and goals for the next five years. This only confirms one of the conclusions that was recently drawn by the HMIC Inspection on stop and search. In their report - denouncing the lack of fairness and effectiveness in how the police uses this power - HMIC found little leadership from the top of each police force in relation to stop and search.

StopWatch has conducted an analysis of all forty-two policing plans to see how PCCs are addressing stop and search. Thirty-six PCCs do not mention stop and search in their policing plans. This includes twenty-five PCCs in policing areas with stop and search disproportionality rates ranging between 1.5 and 5 for various BME groups. For example, the PCC of Avon and Somerset completely ignored that black people are 4.7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people within her area. Elected PCCs were introduced to open up the police to the ‘voice of the people’, and to strengthen ties between the police and communities. Minority communities, which already have the least trust in the police, are notably absent from the plans and apparently considered to be a lesser part of ‘the people’ than others.

Where issues of disproportionality are not such an issue, PCCs still failed to consider the effective or strategic use of stop and search powers. This includes areas like Cumbria, where only three per cent of their stop and searches lead to an arrest, a figure worse than the already low national average of nine per cent. This means a huge waste of police time and it raises questions about the lawfulness of reasonable suspicion searches in some areas. This was an issue raised in the HMIC report, which found that only 27% of recorded stop and searches met the legal threshold of reasonable suspicion. Stop and search is intrusive, more than just an inconvenience to innocent people and it is all-important that the PCCs demonstrate awareness of this fact. The Dyfed-Powys PCC is one of the few that recognised and expressed a will to use stop and search in a non-damaging way. What did the eight PCCs that mentioned stop and search in their plans commit to do about it? For some very little. The PCCs for Leicestershire, South Yorkshire, Thames Valley and Dyfed-Powys state in their policing plans that they will make sure stop and search is used fairly and effectively. But nowhere have they translated these words into a practical strategy, reducing the means of altering the current unfair and ineffective practices to a sheer mystery.

Equally poor is the Policing Plan for London. The MPS have introduced a new approach called “STOP IT,” which has seen welcome reductions in the numbers of stop and searches and limited improvements in disproportionality and effectiveness. While MOPAC is quick to claim the success of STOP IT, the plan says little about their role in the scrutiny of stop and search. Misquoting the force stop and search data, the plan fails to identify the problems in London and says little as to how it will improve community engagement. StopWatch members have attended MOPAC’s public consultation meetings across the city where stop and search was raised repeatedly. Instead of taking note, the following statement from the plan shows how MOPAC’s plan remains struck in old general language: “encourage the MPS to engage with the BME community, and particularly young people”. The problems caused by stop and search demand direct action, not distant encouragement.

Greater Manchester is not doing much better. In response to the HMIC report PCC Tony Lloyd acknowledges ''the need to get the use of stop and search right'' and emphasises his force's introduction of a new recording technique called “airwave radio technology” in order to better scrutinise the use of stop and search. But more than reciting important steps made by his force, we need to hear from him how exactly he will utilise his power as PCC to make sure real changes are made. His policing plan would have been the place to do so, but he refers to stop and search only once, and then only in brackets.

Nottinghamshire and West-Midlands PCCs are the most engaged of all their colleagues. Their strategy is to gather community experience and opinions. July saw the publication of an extensive research project commissioned by Nottinghamshire's PCC Paddy Tipping that aims to improve the relations between his force and BME communities. Among many recommendations it calls for better training of officers, the re-introduction stop and account recording and a consideration of ''the effectiveness of the stop and search strategy, as a crime detection/reduction measure, and as value for money''.  

The West Midlands PCC, Bob Jones, will host a stop and search summit this month. In the words of the deputy PCC Yvonne Mosquito, the aim of the summit is to search ''for common ground between the organisational and professional perspective of the police and the accountability, transparency and community cohesion concerns''. Also Bob Jones has made a commitment to re-introduce the recording of stop and account. It is a shame though that all these practical propositions are not part of the actual policing plan - the same goes for Nottinghamshire's Paddy Tipping - wherein stop and search is only addressed in general language of concern.  

This review of policing plans shows how out of touch PCCs are with local communities' concerns and issues of efficiency. The overall lack of a strategic vision on stop and search in the new policing plans is alarming and very disappointing. Although in particular West Midlands and Nottinghamshire evidence some good initiatives, the PCCs and their policing plans prove once more that there’s still a general lack of interest and will to change the damage that stop and search inflicts on mainly BME communities and young people. The public consultation provides an opportunity for the PCCs to “get it right on stop and search.” It's time they start listening to concerns and working with their forces and communities to make stop and search fairer, more effective and more accountable. There's still time to have your say and make your voice heard!

You can find out more about how the police use stop and search where you live by searching your area page.