1 February 2011
Police stop-and-search data is needed to account for equality
Axing proper records of stop-and-search won't save police much time. But it will lose them trust. Rebekah Delsol and Michael Shiner discuss.
Tomorrow, when parliament debates the government’s proposal to drastically cut the police recording of stop-and-searches, MPs should make sure they’ve got their calculators with them. Nick Herbert, minister for policing and criminal justice, claims that cutting the recording of stop-and-search and stop-and-account will save a total of 750,000 hours of police time a year. This conjures up visions of officers, freed of red tape, getting on with the real job of fighting crime.
But the figures don’t add up. On average, officers conduct two recorded stop-and-searches or stop-and-accounts a month. The government claims each recording averages 15 minutes, so even on its figures the proposed changes would save an officer just half an hour a month. But our estimates suggest a figure of less than half this. In addition, more and more forces are already cutting paperwork by introducing handheld devices to record stops.
For these minimal savings, the changes could carry enormous costs in terms of lost public trust in the police. They would remove five pieces of information from stop-and-search forms, including the name and address of the person stopped; the outcome of the stop (fixed penalty notices, arrest, etc); and any injury caused. This would make much harder to determine whether stop-and-search is targeting the right places and people, and to assess the validity of harassment and abuse allegations.
Take the case of Ken Hinds, who won a judgment against the British Transport police last year after being arrested for observing a youth getting arrested. It later emerged that, despite his work with police to tackle gang violence and monitor stop-and-search, Hinds had been stopped over 100 times in the last 20 years. If name data is dropped from the forms, it would be impossible to verify experiences like this.
The recording of stop-and-account was introduced in 2005 because of community concerns about the abuse of police powers that emerged during the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. These concerns have not gone away. Only last year, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission found black people were six times more likely and Asian people twice as likely to be stopped and searched as white people. Evidence that the plans are wrong may come from the police themselves. Several forces, including the Metropolitan police – the biggest user of stop-and-search – have decided to keep using the full stop-search form and to hold a public consultation on its recording. This decision recognises the importance of community scrutiny and the operational value of stop data.
With only about one in 10 stop-searches ending in arrest, ensuring fewer, more effective, interventions would be one more efficient option. Detailed data is crucial to this end because it provides the basis for rigorous oversight and scrutiny.
The stop-search proposals are part of the government’s “localism agenda”. But, while claiming to give local communities a greater say in how they are policed, ministers are curtailing the information needed to achieve this, and the proposals are being pushed through without the normal public consultation. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act was introduced precisely to end wildly varied powers and recording standards across the country. Minimum standards provide a basic guarantee, and the equalities agenda should not be abandoned in the name of local control.
In the climate of deep public spending cuts, nobody, least of all government ministers, can afford to be complacent about trust and confidence in the police. We need more accountability, not less. The government should drop this ill‑conceived proposal that threatens to undermine police-community relations.
This article was originally published in The Guardian, 1 February 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/01/police-stop-search-data-equality