31 October 2019

Ramping up stop and search works… for no one

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Between Home Office stats and Equality Impact Assessments, the effectiveness of stop and search is waning

The police are getting busier, but to no overall effect.

That is at least one interpretation of the latest Home Office release Police powers and procedures in England and Wales year ending 31 March 2019. And it would appear to have merit on several counts.

Data on the enforcement of section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, showed that while there was a sharp increase in the number of searches (+32%) and arrests (+21%) conducted under the order compared with the previous year, the rate of arrests (proportion of arrests from stops) actually fell from 17% to 16%.

To put this in context, until 2018/19, stop and search activity had been falling since the 2011 riots, following reforms intended to mitigate the heavy-handed use of the practice up to that point in time.

Still, the police continue with their business, undeterred, much like the supposed knife-wielding criminals they claim to seek among the populace, for – to use their technical term – ‘offensive weapons’. But for every police chief crying out for more powers to exercise their authority in combating knife crime, the most common reason for performing a section 1 stop and search in 2018/19 was – as usual – on suspicion of drug possession, which accounted for 61% of all section 1 searches. Only 16% of searches for offensive weapons were even made, the volume of searches increased by only two percentage points on the previous year, and after all that palaver, arrest rates did not budge. Not one bit.

The police have also made more area-wide searches under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in anticipation of violence, but the stats show that roughly five times more searches in the last year have turned up roughly five times more lots of nothing (see table SS_10). And that was ‘before protections surrounding Section 60 in the Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme (BUSSS) were removed earlier this year’, so, in terms of successful search outcome rates, things could get even worse.

Worse still, the rise in stop and searches may have been harmful for certain ethnic minorities. Although the volume of White individuals stopped and searched increased most among all ethnic groups (+40,322), stop and searches of Asian individuals rose most in proportion terms (+44%). This means that, in the year ending March 2019, not only were (Black and minority ethnic) BAME individuals stopped more often than White individuals (4.3 times), but the disparity between the two groups has actually widened over time.

So, when Home Secretary Priti Patel asserts in all her wisdom that ‘stop and search works’, one has to ask, ‘for whom’? Perhaps her civil servants can enlighten her, because whoever wrote the July 2019 Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) on the relaxation of section 60 conditions in the BUSSS seems to have composed a different hymn to sing from. 

Don’t just take my word for it, dear reader; I present you the following quotes from the Home Office document itself: 

Based on our assessment of the evidence, available data points towards a disparity in the use of s60s on individuals from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, especially black men compared with white men. It is possible that this disparity is at least in part a result of discrimination/stereotyping on the part of officers and forces carrying out searches under S60. (page 4)

UK evidence on the effectiveness of stop and search at reducing crime – by both the College of Policing and the Home Office – suggests that changes in the level of stop and search have, at best, only minimal effects on violent crime, even when measured at the local level. (page 8)

In our assessment of the current use of s60, it was concluded that there was not sufficient grounds to discount the possibility of some level of discrimination – either towards individuals, or systematically in the policing of certain communities – as an explanatory factor for existing rates of disparity. As such, any increases in the use of s60 pose the risk of magnifying any residual levels of discrimination in the use of this power. (page 10)

If we are to assume, as above, that disparity rates in the use of s60 persist, then it is likely that more BAME individuals are searched under this power despite not committing any offences, and without being provided with significant person-specific justification for searches taking place. (page 11)

It’s almost as if the EIA anticipated the obvious narrative that one could draw from October’s data. Yet, stop and search just ‘works’. Well, assuming Priti Patel has seen the data, and given what we – including her own department – can clearly see from the data, I would politely make this appeal to her: for better results in future, please may we try employing an evidence-based approach to stop and search?

Written by Eugene K, communications volunteer for StopWatch UK coalition.

Photo by SImon Stratford from FreeImages.