A recent meta-analysis study into the impacts of stop and search has concluded that the evidence of the negative effects ‘makes it difficult to recommend the use of these tactics’ as they may ‘produce more harm than good’ (emphasis added). The study in question, Police stops to reduce crime: A systematic review and meta‐analysis, published in January 2023, compares the findings of 40 studies spanning over 50 years, which investigate the impacts of stop and search. The study found that while the use of stop and search was linked to a decrease in crime, the resulting negative impacts on the individual, specifically on mental and physical health, offset any crime reduction benefits.
Reduction in crime
The study did find a reduction in crime for areas where the police were utilising stop and search. However, within the study, the relationship found between the use of stop and search and crime reduction was much less strong than the relationship between stop and search and resulting negative mental health impacts. Furthermore, the study highlighted that the robustness of stop and search’s crime control effects are questionable, requiring further research to determine its impact on offending. This mirrors multiple other reports findings that stop and search is not effective at deterring crime.
Mental and physical health
So, while the benefits of stop and search appear questionable at best, the negative impacts are a lot clearer.
The use of stop and search was found to severely increase the chance of mental and physical health issues for those subjected to the stops. Stops were experienced as traumatic, invasive, and stressful, and linked to an increase in ‘anxiety, trauma, depression, sleep behaviour, and physical functioning.’ Equally, it was found that individuals who were stopped and searched had a large increase in physical health issues, do the use of force during a stop.
Very worryingly, the impact of stop and search on mental health is far worse for youth, who are also more likely to be subjected to them. Indeed, the study explains that young people are in a ‘critical developmental period and may be particularly susceptible to stressful/traumatic events.’ While the study does not analyse impacts of stop and search by race, it suggests that – as we know Black people and other minority ethnic people are disproportionately more likely to be stopped, and due to a history of mistreatment between such communities and the police – the experience of stop and search could result in more intense mental health impacts, particularly for Black youth. Indeed, the study summarises this, stating that as the negative impacts of stop and search are concentrated on ethnic minority and disadvantaged populations, the use of stop and search may have the additional impact of ‘furthering pre‐existing socioeconomic disadvantage and deepening the divide between police and community members.’
The study also found that the negative impact of stop and search on individuals can actually extend to affect their behaviour, leading to future offending and delinquency. This brings into question stop and search’s actual impact in deterring crime, as its use is found to increase individuals’ likelihood of future offending.
The range of negative impacts of stop and search on individuals subjected to it leads the study to conclude that due to the evidenced ‘backfire effects’ of stops, ‘it is not clear whether these interventions lead to any long‐term net gain or produce benefits that justify their non‐monetary costs.’ In other words, the study found that stop and searches negative impacts on individuals far outweighs the incredibly limited benefits of such police tactics, to a point where, purely from a practical viewpoint, there is no clear gain in using stop and search.
What does this mean for the Met?
Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley recently laid out his plan to ‘police with greater precision,’ using ‘data’ and ‘science’ to improve the accuracy of stop and search, thus intercepting and decreasing crime, while also reducing the instances where stop and search is used with no result, so supposedly reducing its negative impacts.
Our challenge is to create better data to know the precise boundaries of these [crime hot spot] areas, so we can minimise proactive stops where they are not needed.
Primarily, the findings of the study demonstrate what should already be evident to the Met; the use of stop and search has a clear impact on the emotional and physical wellbeing of their targets. Those impacts can be far reaching, and intersect with racial histories of discrimination and disadvantage, especially as Black and other ethnic minority people are still far more likely to be the targets of stop and search. Currently, a Black person is six times more likely to be stopped than a white person. Equally, these negative impacts are felt most by young people, which should be especially worrying for the Met as young people are the main targets of stop and search, with Home Office data showing that over half (54%) of stop and searches were on people aged between 10 to 24 years. Furthermore, as the ‘benefits’ of stop and search on crime control appear to be very limited, it begs us to question why Sir Mark Rowley and the Met continue to support its use.
‘Data’ and ‘Science’
The idea that stop and search can become more accurate and thus less negatively impactful and disruptive through the utilisation of ‘data’ ignores both the long, oppressive and racially discriminatory history of stop and search, and equally the emotional and physical impacts that such practices leaves on its targets. Rowley’s heralding of ‘data’ as a way for stop and search to be practiced ‘precisely’ leaves these issues totally unaddressed.
Equally, the utilisation of the ideas of ‘data’ – and thus accuracy and precision – in the use of searches totally ignores the nature of the policing tactic; it is generally utilised based on a suspicion (or hunch) that someone may be doing something illegal. It is rarely (if ever) used to precisely intercept known criminal activity, or a known crime that is taking place. To pretend that stop and search’s accuracy and impact could be improved by data disregards, or purposively obscures, the police’s use of this power to react to situations based on hunches.
Finally, we must be critical when the ideas of ‘data’ and ‘science’ are vaguely thrown around as a backing for increased policing and social control powers. Historically, the use of data and science in criminal justice responses is a means for the powers at be to distance themselves from the negative social impacts of punitive and damaging criminal justice measures. We must not let Sir Rowley and the Met use the shield of data and science to distance themselves from the obvious negative and discriminatory impacts of stop and search.