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Overall fall in annual stop and searches hides other patterns in street policing operations

As the pandemic effect recedes, 2022 figures highlight something many minoritised communities knew at the time: the oppressive nature of lockdown policing

The Home Office released its annual Police powers and procedures: Stop and search and arrests, England and Wales dataset, which showed a decline in annual searches conducted by the police in the year to 31 March 2022. Forces made just over half a million searches (530,365), a decline of roughly a quarter (26% or 184,549) compared with the previous year (714,914).

The decrease in searches was driven by a 30% reduction in the number of searches for drugs under legislation associated with section 1 of the Police and Crime Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), which fell from 484,917 in the year ending March 2021 to 339,662 in the year ending March 2022. This brought the number of drugs searches in the latest year close to the level in the year ending March 2020, the year preceding the pandemic (350,894). As usual, drugs searches were the most common type, representing 65% of all searches under the power, similar to other years, with offensive weapons a distant second (16% in the year ending March 2022).

Proportion of PACE stop and searches, England and Wales, years ending March 2020, March 2021 and year ending March 2022

The pandemic effect

The Home Office dataset made a number of comparisons with stop and search in year ending March 2020 (pre-pandemic lockdowns) and found a lower volume of searches of all types under section 1 PACE in the year ending March 2022, except criminal damage (up 32%) and firearms (up 2%).

They found that the annual difference was driven by a reduction in stop and searches undertaken by the Metropolitan Police (down 22% from 268,384 to 210,347), which highlights the effect of operational decisions made by the then commissioner Cressida Dick during the lockdown period. The report phrased this as 'proactive policing during COVID-19 lockdowns', captured in the dataset marking the year ending March 2021.

Stripping them* out of the equation meant that the annual volume of stop and searches by type in the rest of England and Wales actually increased between the year ending March 2020 and year ending March 2022, including offensive weapon searches (up 23%) and drug searches (up 5%).

Reason for search, England and Wales (excluding Metropolitan Police data)

Comparing the last two years with the pre-COVID lockdowns period, about half of all forces (23 out of 43 police forces including British Transport Police, but excluding Greater Manchester Police) saw an increase in the use of stop and search.

What did they find though? Despite an expansion in the number of potential outcomes recorded from searches, the proportion of those which ended in NO FURTHER ACTION remained at a similar level compared with the previous couple of years (71% of all searches, or 377,393 out of 530,365; 75% by the old metric).

The proportion of stops linked to the outcome of the search remained fairly low: 23% in the latest year compared with 20% in the previous.

Stop and search, linked outcomes, England and Wales, year ending March 2022

Ultimately, only 3% of searches in the year ending March 2022 (14,900) resulted in an offensive weapon or firearm being found, and approximately 3,500 of those weapons or firearms were found when the initial search reason was for drugs.

Of those 526,024 searches under section 1 PACE (and associated legislation), 66,772 led to an arrest. While the volume of arrests is 18% lower than the previous year, the arrest rate increased two percentage points, from 11% to 13%.

Section 60: What's the use?

Police in England and Wales carried out 4,341 stop and searches under section 60, the power which permits officers to search any designated locality within their police area for up to 24 hours (initially), regardless of suspicion, usually in anticipation of violence. This represents a decrease of 52% compared with the number of searches under the same power in the year ending March 2021 (9,002). Again, this was driven by the Met, the most frequent user of the power (-67% from 5,395 to 1,760), alongside other forces including Merseyside and Thames Valley. And as with previous years, the arrest rate for section 60 searches (3.4%) was much lower than those under section 1 of PACE (13%). 46 persons were found to have offensive weapons in their possession, representing 1% of all searches.

Racial disproportionality

Based on self-defined ethnicity, individuals from a Black or Black British background were searched at the highest rate compared with those from white ethnic groups in the year ending 31 March 2022; 6.2 times higher, a decrease on the previous year (7.0), across England and Wales.

It represented the largest change among ethnic groups too, in part an effect of the end of pandemic policing from the summer of 2021.

Racial disproportionality ratios, year ending March 2022

Stop and search, a young man's game

Just as with previous years, the proportion of police searches skews towards the young. Of the 530,365 searches made in the year to March 2022, the age of the person searched was provided in 498,290 of them, and nearly a fifth of those (19% or 94,905) involved individuals aged between 10 and 17 years, two percentage points up on last year. The searches generated 8,511 arrests (9% of those searches).

Proportion of stop and searches by age group, England and Wales, years ending March 2021 and March 2022

Teenagers are stopped and searched most often: there were 70 stop and searches of males aged 15-19 years per 1,000 population and stop and searches of 7 females of the same age per 1,000 population. And when split by ethnicity, the highest rate of stop and search was for males aged 15-19 years from ethnic minorities (excluding white minorities), who were searched at a rate of 140 per 1,000 people, 2.7x more often than white people of the same age group.

Across the age cohorts, males aged 15-34 years from ethnic minorities (excluding white minorities) account for a hugely disproportionate level of searches (29%), despite only comprising 2.6% of the population. In fact, for males from a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic (excluding white minorities) group, only children under 10 years of age or adults over 60 years of age account for a lower proportion of stop and search than their proportion of the population. However, for females from ethnic minorities (excluding white minorities), all age groups accounted for a lower proportion of total stop and search than their proportion of the population.

For a summary of the data, please find our thread on Twitter:

* Greater Manchester Police also excluded from the data for inaccurate data recording

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