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From stop and search to ‘stop and engage’

Enduring concerns regarding the social control of young people in Scotland

The justification for stop and search often comes down to an unfounded but powerful and persuasive narrative that stop and search can reduce violent crime, such as knife crime. What research does show consistently is that stop and search is a powerful tool of social control, often exercised on marginalised communities. In Scotland this tool of social control went unscrutinised until 2014, when research by Dr Kath Murray highlighted significant disproportionality and discrimination in the (mis)use of stop and search in Scotland, particularly affecting children and young people.

Since 2014 Police Scotland have undertaken a large-scale reform of stop and search, identifying the need to redress and repair relationships between the police and young people. This reform took the shape of a new ‘Code of Practice’ for stop and search, new recording and reporting requirements for all stop and searches, the requirement for all stop and searches to be conducted on a statutory footing only, and nation-wide face to face training for officers. Crucially, reform sought to address discriminatory attitudes amongst officers towards young people. In the nation-wide training for reform, trainers would acknowledge previous discriminatory policing towards young people and encourage officers to challenge their biases. As a senior officer conducting this training memorably said:

Children are allowed to make noise, allowed to be a bit annoying, allowed to be in parks . . . that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a need for a stop and search.

This element went to the heart of the reform of stop and search in Scotland: addressing discrimination within the service would reduce unfair policing of young people, not just unfair use of stop and search. To address this, officers in Scotland were encouraged to shift away from a reliance on stop and search towards the practice of ‘engaging’ with young people in fair and just ways. Since reform, reports demonstrate that the volume of stop and searches has decreased and proportionality has increased. Furthermore, Police Scotland’s Stop and Search Improvement Report for the Cabinet Secretary maintains that the training for reform ‘promotes the positive engagement with children and young people’. In a drive to increase transparency around the use of stop and search in Scotland, Police Scotland have also recently released a ‘stop and search dashboard’ where stop and search records can be interrogated according to age, gender, ethnicity and regional use.

However, oversight of stop and search reform in Scotland did not extend to monitoring police-initiated interactions which sit on the periphery of what counts as a police ‘stop’. Between 2016 and 2018 I undertook observational research that explored how stop and search reform was communicated, understood, and enacted into police practice in Scotland. My research indicated that reform had enabled a new practice to emerge, known as ‘stop and engage’, that facilitated the continued antagonistic over-policing of young people whilst circumventing tighter oversight mechanisms established for the official practice of stop and search. In the new reform context, all stop and search encounters were recorded and reviewed internally, but engagement encounters – encounters that amount to a ‘stop’, but crucially, not a stop and search – did not require any official recording. I found continued evidence of over-policing of young people and continued prejudice towards Scotland’s youth. Far from reform intentions to encourage positive and fair engagement with young people, engagement was instead often communicated to officers as an investigatory practice that could enable them to build up grounds to undertake a stop and search within the new regulatory environment. Indeed, several officers described how they relied on strategies of ‘engagement’ to achieve the same objectives of social control that unregulated stop and search had once afforded them, such as letting suspected offenders ‘know we are on to them’ and dispersing young people from public spaces.

Moreover, whilst officers did demonstrate a significant reduction in their use of stop and search (often attributed to the stricter reporting mechanisms which increased paperwork and internal scrutiny), there was little evidence that this was because they had addressed their prejudicial opinions of young people. I witnessed officers variously describing young people as ‘wee bams and proper bams’, ‘a cow’ and ‘brats’. I observed instances of young people being targeted for police attention simply by their presence in public space, such as hanging around a shop, being sat on a grit box, or walking home. In none of those instances was there any evidence of these young people engaging in criminal behaviour, and yet they were all subjected to police attention and questioning, asking them to account for what they were doing, where they were going, how and why they were ‘known’ to the officer, and why they were behaving the way they were. At no point were any of these young people made aware that they had a right to refuse, and officers would leverage young people’s lack of awareness of their human and legal rights to engage with them in these ways. Altogether, my research demonstrated little shift in officer attitudes towards young people in Scotland, which has meant that whilst young people may no longer be subjected to the high level of stop and search they experienced before reform, they do continue to experience antagonistic policing in the post-reform environment, legitimised by the language of ‘engagement’.

The intractability of stop and search in policing is demonstrated by its propensity to shapeshift when scrutinised. Whilst reforms enhance accountability and scrutiny over stop and search practices, they also encourage officers to shift away towards practices that are not easily defined or accounted for. It is now possible to identify several practices that can be considered stop and search ‘adjacent’, such as stop and account in England and Wales, the yellow card system in Cheshire police, and now stop and engage in Scotland. These practices serve to achieve the continued social control of marginalised populations that had previously been enabled by unregulated stop and search, whilst circumventing the rules and procedures designed to safeguard from the misuse of stop and search. Police, academics and advocacy groups need to expand their focus beyond stop and search to those practices that sit at the periphery this power: practices which, for all intents and purposes, are used to control people in public space, that embody the process of ‘stopping’ enacted within, but not necessarily resulting in, a ‘stop and search’. Focussing police reform on stop and search only addresses the visible expression of the problem, which remains rooted in discriminatory attitudes held within policing and consistently finds new avenues for expression.

Written by Dr Estelle Clayton, based on the study Mechanisms of the social control of children and young people: From ‘stop and search’ to ‘stop and engage’ in Police Scotland, published in Criminology & Criminal Justice on 25 April 2024.

All blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of StopWatch UK.

About the author

Dr Estelle Clayton. Dr Estelle Clayton is a research fellow and lecturer in criminology at Edinburgh Napier University

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