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StopWatch responds to HMIC report on current use of stop and search powers

HMIC report has found slow to no progress on transparency, guidance and fairness in the use of stop and search powers across the UK since the Home Secretary's promise for reform. StopWatch welcomes these criticisms, and asks: isn't it time for primary legislation?

StopWatch welcomes the main findings and recommendations of the HMIC’S Report on the use of stop and search powers. The report focuses on three issues: progress towards the 2013 report’s recommendations, the use of Section 163 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 and Police Reform Act 2002; and the use of strip search.

The report rightfully points out pitiful progress on the recommendations since 2013. Of the ten, only one has made it to implementation – concerning the use of technology to record information about stop and search encounters. In all other areas it criticizes the College of Policing for making little progress, not least in defining ‘what constitutes the effective and fair use of stop and search powers’. The College has a mandate to develop standards for professional practice by the police, crucial in enabling consistency across the 43 forces in England and Wales when it comes to stop and search. If the College of Policing does not adequately provide these standards and tools to measure and monitor performance it is hard to see how this consistent transparency and accountability can be achieved. The recommendation of training requirements for police officers in stop and search, highlighted by the StopWatch Youth Network as a fundamental concern has also been neglected, with progress ‘far too slow’. The report also underlines that the delays in achieving national standards for the recording of stop and search cannot be justified by any reasons and it should be implemented as soon as possible.

In regards to the complaints process, the report states that many police officers consider the low number of complaints a valid reason not to investigate how people feel about stop and search. This is a lazy conclusion, and one that doesn’t hold if any real analysis is performed. According to the 2013 survey, of those who were unhappy with a stop and search encounter only 16% made a complaint. This remarkably low rate should instead be seen as an additional level of mistrust, disengagement and disenfranchisement, whereby those who have the worst experience of policing in the UK also have the least faith in the complaints process. In the HMIC’s words, the fact that the police seem unable to recognize this is ‘very disappointing’ and the problem ‘must be urgently addressed’.

In relation to section 163 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (RTA), two key findings are particularly interesting, and consistent with research from the StopWatch Youth Network:

  • a higher proportion of black and minority ethnic drivers than white drivers reported a vehicle stop, and were treated differently to their white counterparts in these encounters.  They were more likely not to be provided with a reason for the stop, more likely to have their vehicle searched, and potentially  more likely to be subject of a person search;
  • stops of black and minority drivers were also less likely to result in a prosecution than stops of white drivers, suggesting that BME drivers are more likely to be stopped without reasonable grounds.

An important problem is the lack of guidance on how to use RTA powers fairly and effectively. Other stop and search powers, such as the Police and Criminals Evidence Act (PACE) are regulated by a Code of Practice, with guidance on how the power should be used. The RTA does not have any such code, and as such is open to misinterpretation and widespread abuse. To compound the situation, stops do not need to be recorded under the RTA. This means there is no data on how the power is being used, and how often. The need for guidance and reporting was emphasized in the HMIC’s 2013 report, and the lack of progress in this area is indicative of the low priority police forces give to regaining public confidence. This second publication concludes that ‘the absence of reliable data about the use of the Road Traffic Act and Police Reform Act powers has meant that forces cannot demonstrate to us that they are using these powers effectively and fairly’, and for this reason, HMIC recommends that the Home Office should include the Road Traffic Act power into Code A of PACE.

The HMIC recognizes that the power to strip search a person is ‘extremely intrusive’ and StopWatch welcomes the assertion that recording of these encounters is absolutely necessary, especially in order to monitor the use of strip search on children and vulnerable people. According to their survey, ‘36 percent of the constables who responded had conducted a search that involved more than the removal of an outer coat, jacket or gloves, and 15 percent had conducted a strip search in the past month’. The survey also found that some officers have conducted strip searches in way that breached the statutory code of practice (for example, by carrying out strip searches in unauthorised locations and in the presence of officers of the opposite sex). These experiences, frequently traumatic and humiliating, are often initiated for low level offences such as possession of small quantities of recreational drugs. 

StopWatch reaffirms its position that the threshold of arrest should apply for the use of strip search powers. Interviews that HMIC conducted with police officers themselves shows that some believe that it would be preferable to conduct a search only after an arrest, using post-arrest powers in custody where additional safeguards apply, along with supervision of officers. 

StopWatch supports the recommendations put forward in the HMIC’s report and we second its criticisms. Although the efforts made by the Home Office in launching the Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme are welcomed, it is clearly not leading to meaningful change in our communities. The home secretary is on record stating that ‘if the numbers do not come down, if stop and search does not become more targeted, if those stop-to-arrest ratios do not improve considerably, the government will return with primary legislation to make these things happen’. The HMIC’s report could not be clearer – stops are still unrecorded, guidance is lacking, and disproportionality is stubborn as ever. If now is not the time for primary legislation, when is?

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