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The importance of stop and search and Use of Force scrutiny panels

It is in the interest of police forces themselves to help form effective community scrutiny panels/monitoring groups in their areas, argues Bedfordshire Police Community Scrutiny Panel vice chair

We hear much about the need for community scrutiny in relation to police action in the fields of stop and search and Use of Force.

Over the years there has been a plethora of well researched, detailed and authoritative reports, briefings and articles which recommend community scrutiny as a means of holding the police to account in addition to the already established formal oversight organisations. Many of these reports focus not only on the use of the powers themselves but also on the disproportionality as between ethnic groups.

Looking at the data produced by individual constabularies, it can be seen that disproportionality exists not only as between ethnic groups in a given area but also between the forces themselves. In some cases, the forces with the lowest levels of non-White ethnic population have very high disproportionality rates as referred to below.

Unrest amongst minority communities at the way they have been treated over time is documented and illustrated more particularly since the Brixton riots of 1981 and subsequent civil disturbances. It would be wrong to suggest that police action was and is the sole cause, but it can be a factor.

By way of police powers themselves and their use we have the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) with its Code A covering stop and search. We also have statutory provisions defining Use of Force to a degree but more focusing on the power of officers to use that force under section 117 of PACE and section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967. The College of Policing is also a source of official guidance in both areas.

No two forces will ever be entirely comparable in terms of the exercise of their powers given the varying policing demands but the laws and rules they must follow in the performance of their duties should be complied with and consistently so. This is important in terms of public trust of the police in general and the effective and lawful pursuit of law breakers.

We know that Black people are subject to stop and search much more than White people. The government figures published in February this year show that per 1,000 of each group 6 White people are stopped and searched as opposed to 54 Black people. This national statistic tends to mask local variances which are also published. It can be seen when looking at the information on a force by force basis that, for instance, one county constabulary with a mixed ethnic population stops and searches 3 White people to 10 Black people per 1,000 whereas these numbers in a largely rural force area are put at 2 to 48 respectively.

With such wide variations in police stop and search ethnicity data as between forces can the only conclusion be reached that there is also a substantial disparity in the effectiveness of the community scrutiny structure from one constabulary to the next.

So, we have a multitude of reports prepared with the best of intentions many of which state and restate what we largely already know. These documents are not generally defined by the agendas of their authors as they have in some cases been the product of HMICFRS, parliament and even the police themselves. Should we therefore be focusing our attention on the practical aspects of the community scrutiny process itself?

Given the acknowledged importance of community oversight, should we not be directing our attention away from repeated and indeed repetitious reports, and devoting the time, effort and money saved on setting up a statutory structure requiring Commissioners or their equivalent to form effective Community Scrutiny Panels/Monitoring Groups in their areas?

The benefits would inevitably flow through in consistency of training, decision making, standing, compliance and effectiveness within both the scrutiny groups and their associated forces.

We see with other volunteer oversight bodies that they have underpinning legislation which has existed for many years. The Independent Monitoring Board has its Prisons Act 1952, and the Independent Custody Visitor scheme has the Police Reform Act 2002. These respectively place obligations on the Secretary of State for Justice and the Police and Crime Commissioners. In the circumstances there would appear to be not only a need for a move towards statutory standing for community scrutiny but ample precedent in similar areas.

Martin White

Joint vice-chair, Bedfordshire Police Community Scrutiny Panel

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