17 February 2014

Vehicle stops and strip searches - the methodology of our recent findings

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Two weeks ago the Guardian reported our findings of a) increasing and discriminatory vehicle stops, and b) the facts (and lack thereof) concerning strip searches in the context of stop-and-searches. To accompany this report, and lay the groundwork for relevant, upcoming StopWatch briefings, we offer this discussion of some of the methodology and sources behind these findings.

The estimated 5.5 million traffic stops

In regards to vehicle stop numbers, from 2011 British Crime Survey (BCS) (now called the CSEW, Crime Survey for England and Wales) results, approximately 10% of adults in England and Wales are subject to a traffic stop while driving every year, and it was estimated, through 2011 census numbers of persons aged over 16, that 5.5 million adults had been stopped that year. These estimates take account of multiple stops, using information provided by the BCS. This information was largely taken from the BCS due to lack of police recording.

Those from Black and ethnic minorities more likely to be stopped

The BCS revealed that a large percentage of people stopped were of non-white ethnicity. From 2008 to 2011, 11% white people had reported being subject to traffic stops, whereas 33% of people of mixed black and white ethnicities, and 18% of both black Caribbean and Asian Muslim people reported being stopped.  Again, the police-recorded data on this topic is incredibly sparse, and in fact is not very regulated due to the fact that the police are granted powers of stop and search within traffic stops but do not have to record the procedure past the initial stop, highlighting a lack of oversight in traffic stops.

Strip Search data

Police officers have the power to perform a strip search during the course of a stop and search should they deem it necessary. Whilst this information may be recorded on individual stop and search forms there is no central recording of the data. Release, a member of StopWatch, submitted Freedom of Information (‘FOI’) requests to 43 police forces in England and Wales and the lack of centralisation/ reporting structure means that the information was not easily accessible. The majority of respondents to the FOI requests cited that the gathering of this data (mostly in paper reports) would extend beyond the bounds of reasonable costs and effort that Freedom of Information Act inquiries are allowed. The list, below, shows the breakdown of police constabulary responses received. The lack of centralization, or at the very least, computerization of these records seems to be a significant hurdle in assessing the scale of use of this power, how it impacts on black and minority ethnic communities and children, and whether it is effective in detecting prohibited items

  • Refusal on Grounds of Cost : Avon and Somerset, Cheshire, City of London, Cleveland, Cumbria, Devon and Cornwall, Durham (unsure if they have the data), Dyfed Powys, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Hampshire, Humberside, Kent, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, London Metropolitan, Merseyside, North Wales, North Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Thames Valley, South Wales, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Wiltshire, Bedfordshire (gave no reason for refusal)
  • No Data Recorded: Doret, Gwent, Norfolk, South Yorkshire, Suffolk, Surrey
  • No Response/ Awaiting Response: Essex,  Lancashire,  Staffordshire,  Warwickshire,  West Mercia
  • Partial Response: Cambridgeshire,  Derbyshire,  Hertfordshire,  Nottinghamshire,  Northumbria

This situation gives a striking image to the lack of easily accessible data about strip searches. With an area as sensitive, and potentially humiliating or damaging as strip searches, oversight and regulation is key. But all of the information received was incomplete. Cambridgeshire police provided some information on people who have been subject to “more thorough searches” (addressed further down) which revealed that some of these searches were conducted in inappropriate places (i.e., a bus station ticket office, a public toilet).

Data provided by Northumbria police included a comprehensive record of clothes removed and intimate parts of the body exposed during strip searches from 2010 to 2013. These data revealed that young people as young as 12 were being subject to removal of clothing during stop and search, although the extent of these searches is not clear. Approximately 11% of the strip searches carried out in Northumbria were of under 18s, who can be searched in public without a responsible adult being present. In the data provided, it was clear Northumbria police, although conducting hundreds of strip searches, recovered prohibited items only a handful of time. Between 2010 to 2013, of the 1,501 “clothing removed” searches performed, 1,098 of these yielded no property, and only 336 of these searches led to arrests

There is no mechanism for the specification of the level of strip search carried out by the police, i.e. if the search was “more thorough” or if intimate parts were revealed. Phrases like “more thorough”  have no set definition, and inquiries into this matter have so far not yielded any coherent response other than direction to the PACE codes which outline the legal bounds of strip searches, but do not provide clarification on what level of strip search is considered more thorough.

In the coming weeks, StopWatch will be producing full briefings on vehicle road stops, and strip searches. These brief will expand on issues within both of these areas, and offer recommendations concerning the need for comprehensive reporting, and greater centralization to ensure police accountability.

Our findings were recently reported in the Guardian newspaper and can be read here.