17 January 2013

Stop and Search Damages the Police

Mike Shiner's avatar

Blog by Michael Shiner and Rebekah Delsol discussing the damage stop and search does to the police.

Photo: John Stillwell / Press Association

Stop and search damages the police 


Originally published by ShiftingGrounds on 17th January 2013, http://shiftinggrounds.org/2013/01/stop-and-search-damages-the-police/


In the week it was announced that criminal charges could be bought over the plebgate “conspiracy” and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, was criticised for hastily backing the officers involved, the skeleton of stop and search has been firmly brought out of the cupboard.

A complaint by Stuart Lawrence, that he has been targeted for stop and search because of the colour of his skin, has been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Lawrence’s complaint echoes the testimony that led the independent inquiry into the death of his brother, Stephen, to conclude more than a decade ago that the police are “institutionally racist”.

The Metropolitan Police Service’s response to Lawrence’s recent complaint shows why more progress has not been made towards resolving this issue. While promising “strong action” against any “individuals” if they are found to have acted in a racist manner, the Met insisted that the “use of stop and search is an important tool to combat crime”, claiming that the “consistent message from our engagement with the public is that the wider community support stop and search as long as it is carried out fairly and professionally and that officers are accountable for their actions”.

The problem, as the Lawrence Inquiry made clear, is that the over-policing of black people is not simply a matter of what individual officers do but is driven by organisational policies and procedures.

Rather than dealing with the problem head-on, the caveat, “as long as it is carried out fairly and professionally”, is a smokescreen designed to deflect attention away from a tactic that is grossly over-used at considerable cost for little benefit. The fact is that stop and search isn’t being used fairly, efficiently or effectively. The Home Office’s own research shows that it has little discernible impact on crime; arrest rates have fallen sharply to around 10 per cent and the disproportionate focus on black people remains stubbornly high (at roughly seven times the rate of white people).

The ill-judged use of stop and search is damaging the reputation of the police service in some of our most crime-affected communities, making life more difficult for the police and the people they serve. Negative contact with officers and the perception that the police are acting unfairly damages trust and confidence, making members of the public less likely to obey the law and less willing to cooperate with the police. It also fuels a sense of frustration and alienation among those on the receiving end, putting both public order and officer safety at risk.

A year ago, in the aftermath of the 2010 summer riots and research highlighting a link with stop and search, Bernard Hogan-Howe set aside the usual self-serving justifications and took positive action. Amid reports that he was concerned about the number of black people being stopped in London despite having done nothing wrong, the Commissioner announced that the Met would reduce its use of stop and search, cutting by half the number of authorisations for section 60 searches – an exceptional power that does not require reasonable suspicion.

According to latest figures the number of stop searches has fallen by 37 per cent across the Met as a whole and the number of section 60 searches has fallen by more than 90 per cent. Over the same period there has been a gradual decline in crime and in youth violence – one of the ostensible targets of stop and search.

While this more judicious approach is to be welcomed, some of what Hogan-Howe promised is yet to materialise. The arrest rate has increased marginally to 11.9 per cent but remains well below the 20 per cent that was targeted.

There is then clearly much still to be done, yet the Met’s response to Stuart Lawrence’s complaint suggests a loss of impetus and a return to back-covering and spin. This is a risky and divisive strategy. Now more than ever, perhaps, the police cannot afford to take public support for granted and need to demonstrate integrity. What this means for stop and search is a process of honest reflection and the development of an evidence-led approach supported by robust forms of scrutiny. As well as reassuring the public, the police might find that this offers the best way of protecting their own interests.