30 March 2015

Briefing on Stop and Search and PCC developments: January - March 2015

StopWatch's avatar

Essential reading covering key developments on stop and search and also matters relating to Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) between January to March 2015.

< previous briefing (October - December 2014)


This briefing covers the following major developments between January and March 2015:

  1. New Code of Practice Governing Stops and Searches Comes into Force
  2. HMIC: ‘Police forces failing to understand the impact of stop and search’
  3. Rise in Complaints and Allegations Made Against the Police
  4. Staffordshire Police Review Calls for an Overhaul of Stop and Search
  5. Scotland’s Police Criticised Over lost Search Records and Announces Review of ‘Consensual Searches’


1. New Code of Practice Governing Stops and Searches Comes into Force

The revised code of practice governing how police officers use and interpret their powers to stop and search people came into effect from Thursday 19th March 2015. Amongst the changes it brings into force, is making it clearer that ‘reasonable suspicion’, the legal requirement for most street searches, must be tied to an objective and genuine suspicion that a person is carrying a dangerous or prohibited item and that the officers conducting the search are likely to find that object. It also places a stronger duty upon supervising officers and senior police officers to monitor and supervise the use of these powers and take any necessary disciplinary action.

Section 60, a power to police public disorder which does not require any grounds to suspect that a person is carrying dangerous or prohibited objects in order to search them but requires prior authorisation by a senior officer, also sees a change. There is now a requirement that authorisations must include the names of the streets compromising the outer boundaries of the authorisation area; previously, large geographical areas could be designated as section 60 and it was unclear how far the authorisation extended.

A more detailed outline of what changes the codes of practice bring into effect can be read in the previous briefing.


2. HMIC: ‘Police forces failing to understand the impact of stop and search’

Police forces have been criticised for a lack of progress in reforming the way stop and search is monitored and recorded, their disproportionate use of traffic stops against people from minority backgrounds and the lack of scrutiny in the use of strip-searches.

This is according to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), the body responsible for inspecting the police. The HMIC’s highly critical inspection follows a previous one conducted eighteen months ago which sought to investigate whether police forces were using stop and search powers in an efficient and effective way designed to reduce crime whilst also being applied proportionately and fairly to those subject to those powers.


Progress since the last inspection
The first part of the inspection assessed the extent to which police forces were implementing the ten recommendations the HMIC made back in 2013 and concluded that there was a disappointing lack of progress since then. According to the report, the only recommendation where good progress had been made related to

  • making better use of technology to record stops and searches

It judged that some progress had been made in ensuring that:

  •  searches were properly supervised;
  • intelligence from searches were being used to help in broader crime fighting;
  • members of the public could scrutinise search records;

Insufficient progress was made in:

  • establishing a clear definition of ‘what constitutes effective and fair exercise of stop and search powers’;
  • delivering a standardised, national training programme of police officers;
  • improving their understanding of how stop and search could negatively impact upon trust and confidence in the police;
  • ensuring that people can complain more easily about their experiences and quicker; and
  • introducing a standard, national form to record searches.


The HMIC recommended that all police forces should immediately produce and make public an action plan detailing how they will ensure that the ten recommendations are implemented by November 2015.

The use of traffic stops
The inspection also investigated the use of traffic stops and called for the recording of these encounters. It expressed concerns that people from minority ethnic backgrounds were being disproportionately targeted under traffic stops, less likely to be given an explanation as to why they were being stopped and having their vehicle searched and that they were also less likely to be stopped for a valid reason. The HMIC also recommended that data recorded should be made public and that guidance should be developed for officers using those powers.

The final area of inspection related to the use of strip-searches and the removal of outer layers of clothing. The HMIC was also critical of the lack of guidance to officers in how to exercise these powers, the lack of recording of these incidents and it was particularly concerned over the lack of oversight of children being stripped and searched or subject to the removal of outer layers of clothing. The HMIC recommended that all strip searches and requirement to remove outer layers of clothing be recorded within three months, the issuing of standard guidance to officers exercising those powers, public scrutiny of its use and the requirement for prior authorisation from a supervising officer in order to subject children to these powers.

3. New Rise in Complaints and Allegations Made Against the Police

There was a 15% increase in recorded complaints against the police and a 10% rise in allegations made against them (multiple allegations can be made in relation to a single complaint). This is according to the IPCC which published its annual statistics on police complaints covering the financial year 2013 to 2014; the report also covers the financial period of 2012 to 2013.

The report shows variance between forces in the extent to which complaints and allegation rose but stated that there was a ‘clear’ increase within most police forces. According to the IPCC, this is most likely due to legislative changes which broadened the definition of what constitutes as an allegation or complaint but they also concluded that there was an increased willingness amongst the general public to complain against the police.

The report also found that forces were generally taking longer to record complaints, possibly due to the financial cuts to the public sector; the number of complaints ‘discontinued’ by a police force has decreased; and the number of complaints made but later withdrawn by the complainant stayed the same.


4. Staffordshire Police Review Calls for an Overhaul of Stop and Search

An independent panel set up by Staffordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner has called for “an overhaul of the way that stop and search is looked at and directed" by Staffordshire police and expressed its concerns on how police officers were using those powers.

The Ethics, Transparency and Audit Panel (ETAP) conducted an independent investigation into how stop and search was used and monitored by their police force and raised its concerns over what they felt were misunderstandings held by police officers in how to use stop and search powers, the low number of searches resulting in an arrest, wide variance in the quality of search records kept to monitor their use and the lack of appropriate supervision of those forms or general use by frontline supervisors. The panel also raised concern relating to these encounters not being captured by the new body worn video cameras used by the force, the lack of oversight on how road and traffic stops are being used and searches of young people and children.

The ETAP made a series of recommendations included better training of frontline officers and their supervisors, stronger supervision, a public campaign to highlight people’s rights if stopped and searched, ensuring that complaints are recorded centrally and giving a single department within Staffordshire Police the responsibility for stop and search in order to drive forward improvements to the quality and outcome of searches.

5. Scotland’s Police Criticised Over lost Search Records and Announces Review of ‘Consensual Searches’

Police Scotland has come under intense scrutiny for its use of stop and search powers leading to its chief constable, Sir Stephen House, appearing before a committee of Scottish parliamentarians. During the appearance, the police were criticised for a ‘computer programming error’ which lead to the loss of the outcomes of 20,086 recorded searches from the central police system.

Police Scotland was also criticised for their use of ‘consensual searches’ in order to search young people. Consensual searches are searches which take place with the consent of the person stopped and, shortly after the Parliamentary appearance, Police Scotland announced a review to end that practice. This was welcomed by the First Minister but it was criticised by the Scottish Police Federation, the body that represents rank-and-file officers, for what they saw as political interference in policing and also blamed performance targets for driving up the use of stops and searches.

Consensual searches used to occur across England and Wales but were abolished over ten years ago after research by the Home Office found that members of the public were not well enough informed of their legal rights to give informed consent to a search and that these were being used by some officers as a way to circumvent requirements to record those encounters.