4 July 2012

Changing How You Measure, But Not What You Do

Niamh Eastwood's avatar

Niamh Eastwood, Daniel Bear, and Rebekah Delsol examine reported reductions in stop and search usage as a response to last year's riots.

Photo: John Stillwell / Press Association

Frustration at police stop and search practices were a leading cause of last year’s riots. As the UK quietly marked the anniversary of the riots a week ago, a number of police services across the country boasted  that they had responded to the issue of stop and search and significantly reduced the number of times the power is used. Some forces even claimed that they had become more effective finding ‘reasonable suspicion’ to engage in stop and search, and had seen the number of illegal items seized rise considerably. However, a more intensive look at the Metropolitan Police Service statistics shows that some forces are clearly overstating the situation and that the issue of racial disparity is still endemic to all boroughs of the capital.

Local papers in Croydon reported that the police have increased their success rate, where an illegal item is discovered, from about seven per cent to 19 per cent. However, it seems that some generous manipulation of the statistics has occurred. The seven per cent referred to relates to the arrest rate recorded in June 2011, but in June 2012 the arrest rate was had risen to only 11.3%, a slight improvement but certainly not claimed 19%. It seems that Croydon Police have used a new ‘Stop and Search MPS Key Performance Indicator Progress Report’ as the basis for their new found success. By including cannabis warnings as a ‘success’, the police have further incentivized officers to target one of the least harmful of crimes in our society at the expense of removing dangerous weapons or catching more serious offenders. The result is that there has been an increase in robberies across London.  

The manipulation in Croydon is reflective of other boroughs in London, and nine out of ten Londoners searched are found with nothing illegal in their possession.

In Hackney, another area that saw clashes between the police and young people, the statistics show that there has only been a small decrease in the use of reasonable suspicion stop and searches. Despite the call by the Met Police Commissioner for a 50% reduction in the number of negative searches for drugs, the proportion of drug searches in Hackney have increased from 50% to 60% in the last 12 months. The level of arrests have remained the same (approximately 10%) and the level of disproportionately is unchanged.

Whilst the reduction in the numbers being stopped and searched should be welcomed, the reduction in searches has only begun  in the last 3 to 4 months. Even if this trend continues the rate of ‘reasonable suspicion’ stop and search in the capital will amount to 250,000 events a year, and at least 50% of these will be for drugs. That means ¼ of a million people will be searched –hands put in their pockets and contents of backpack rifled through- mostly in the hunt for small amounts of cannabis. Additionally, the aim of the Met Police to reduce the use of these powers does nothing to address the disproportionately where young black and Asian men are up to nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than their white counterparts. This is despite the fact that the white population uses more drugs than any other group.

The Met Police have clearly done some positive work around stop and search practices.  The near elimination of s60 searches-where officers don’t need reasonable grounds to conduct a search- should be welcomed. However, until there is meaningful engagement on the issue of disproportionality the same problems identified after the riots last year will continue to fester.   More must be done to monitor the conduct of police officers who repeatedly target individuals based on the colour of their skin. Targets to reduce racial disparity must be implemented, and more work to improve community confidence should be undertaken.

Stop and search can only be used if there is an articulable ground for reasonable suspicion, and arguably a 90% failure rate shows that the legal basis for the use of this power is not being established. This means that hundreds of thousands of young people in the UK are being subjected to police interference unreasonably, irrevocably damaging their relationship with police. It was this situation that contributed to the riots, and if we are to avoid a repeat the police have to start doing their job properly and lawfully.