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Get you scrutiny that can do both: The Suffolk Stop and Search Community Reference Group as a model

Georgia-Mae Chung describes how Suffolk Stop and Search Community Reference Group scrutinize stop and searches conducted by Suffolk police officers and how the group navigated the difficulties caused by the pandemic

We are living in turbulent times when it comes to the evolution of policing. By proposing legislation such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill and the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021, the government is seeking to extend police powers. What is really striking is the juxtaposition of this desire with the growing mistrust of those who would be allowed to wield that power. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the continued Black Lives Matter movement, and the questionable behaviour of police at recent protests, individuals from minority backgrounds have ample reason to be wary. Scrutiny of the police’s actions is as important as ever.

With this context, it is clear that this scrutiny must be both representative and effective. A current challenge for scrutiny panels is grasping that balance, especially since the concepts go hand in hand. You cannot expect to have effective scrutiny unless it aims to tackle the issues of the population it seeks to inform and protect. Meanwhile, the goal of representative scrutiny is left somewhat redundant if it doesn’t have some teeth behind it. Both the police and the community must be given reason to take notice and get involved.

A model answer to this challenge lies in a format that is now over a decade old. The Suffolk Stop and Search Reference Group (SSRG) held its first meeting in 2009 and it now meets every two months. The group aims to ensure that stop and search is used appropriately. Since January of this year, I have been honoured to play a key role in these meetings. The process involves ISCRE receiving stop and search forms from Suffolk Police, which are then dip sampled based on the ethnicity of the subject. The result is made up of 33% BAME, 10% W1, 33% any other white, and 33% not stated. As the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE)’s community projects officer, I dip sample the forms and send queries about their legality to the police for comments. Based on those, I then select between 5 and 7 forms to discuss at the meeting. I present them and ask for responses from the police. The floor is then opened to members of the public to give their comments and questions.

How is the Panel effective?

The merit of effective scrutiny panels for the community may seem obvious. However, such effectiveness is crucial to the police too. They are reliant on the trust and confidence of the public to succeed because of such elements as receiving reports and working with potential witnesses and victims. There is a reciprocated interest in results. SSRG achieves those results by discussing actions to be taken going forward and following up on those that had been agreed in previous meetings.

As aforementioned, the meeting presents an opportunity for discussion between the police and the public. The scrutiny lies, not only in the attendees looking at the presented forms, but also in them listening to officers’ responses when they are questioned about them. If a stop search has fallen short of a good standard, the group wants to know why that is and how it will be resolved; for instance, through feedback and/or training.

As well as questioning the actions of those who have conducted the stop searches, the group scrutinizes the actions of the supervising officers who oversee how the forms are completed. This is used when forms have been signed off that did not clearly identify the reasonable grounds for the stop and search. It has served to encourage supervisors to conduct more scrutiny of their officers’ actions themselves. Consequently, there has been an increase in supervisors giving constructive feedback to officers where it is required.

Suffolk Police also discuss complaints with the ISCRE team, including the circumstances of the complaint and the progress of the complaints process. Based on this, the team can choose some complaints to bring to the meeting and enquire about there. Other elements have been discussed that make fewer regular appearances on the agenda but are relevant at that time. For instance, when there is a Section 60 put in place, the police inform ISCRE prior to it going ahead. The outcomes of this are then shared with the group. Additionally, when it has been thought to be in the interest of those concerned and those attending, the meeting has spoken about published Independent Office for Police Conduct decisions.

Additionally, the elected Police and Crime Commissioner regularly attends the meetings. This gives the opportunity for action to be taken from a different angle.

How is the Panel representative?

The meetings are open to everyone, and its attendees are diverse. Notably, they are diverse in terms of their ethnic backgrounds, and people of colour make up a significant proportion of attendees. This ensures that the panel’s influence and conversation are as representative as possible of those members of the public impacted by stop and search. This is fitting when one considers the disproportionate use of the tool on individuals from those backgrounds. Although Suffolk’s White British population is larger than the England and Wales average, there remains significant disproportionality in the way that stop and search is used.

Diversity isn’t only present through the attendees of these meetings but also through those organising and running them. They are administered by ISCRE, which was formed in 1977 and is now a registered charity. It runs culturally-informed interventions to support individuals and organisations to understand the extent and nature of inequality experienced by individuals and groups in such fields as the criminal justice system, education, and health and social care. Moreover, it encourages the implementation of policies and practices to help to remedy this. Its business and operations director, Phanuel Mutumburi, sometimes chairs the SSRG meetings and is involved in their administration.

They are usually headed by Franstine Jones who is the equality and diversity consultant for Binspyred and the director of compliance for BeMeLikeWe. She was the first woman president of the National Black Police Association, and she is the former interim director of ISCRE.

The foundations of these meetings are therefore formed by respected and approachable community leaders and organisations, which in turn encourages diverse attendance. This prevents the danger of a panel that feels dominated and directed by the police. Instead, the meeting is clearly community led and chaired and this encourages more open and honest discussion. As a young, mixed-race, state school educated woman, I hope that my presenting at these meetings also contributes to the panel’s representative nature.

Representative elements are also evident in other areas. For instance, those police attending the meetings range in seniority, from constables to the assistant chief constable of Suffolk. This ensures that outcomes and discussions from them are apparent to those at a number of levels. Consequently, regardless of whether the action needed is to be implemented by the officers on the ground, the assistant chief constable, or anyone in between, it has at least been clearly communicated to the relevant group or individual.

Another key point is that, since the coronavirus restrictions began, the meetings moved format to take place remotely over Microsoft Teams. Consequently, there has been a marked increase in attendance by both members of the public and police representatives.

This combination of effectiveness and representativeness means that SSRG provides the kind of scrutiny that is crucial for the current time and circumstances. It is a model answer for modern challenges and other panels would undoubtedly benefit from following its lead.

By Georgia-Mae Chung

Community projects officer for the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality

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