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(Why) do Londoners back stop and search?

StopWatch looks at the Centre for Social Justice's report 'Serious violence in London'

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) recently released a report showing that 63% of Londoners support stop and search police powers (where there are reasonable grounds for suspicion and these are explained by the police). Drawing on polling data*, the report found that majority support for stop and search was upheld across ethnic groups, with even a slight increase in support among young people (18-24) (52%) compared with five years ago (49%).

Breakdown of Londoners support for stop and search by ethnicity and age

Support was also strong (51%) for the police to be on foot and accessible in local areas more often, as well as to see police more at secondary schools, sport events, and station open days.

Which of the following would you like the police to do to better connect with young people in London?

Drawing from these findings, the CSJ concludes that stop and search should continue to be deployed as part of the crime prevention toolkit and that the Met should regularly release stop and search data to the public to increase trust in them.

However, public perception and backing of stop and search alone are not sufficient grounds for continuing stop and search powers. Instead, stop and search should be evaluated on its effectiveness and whether these powers can be applied whilst upholding human rights. All this begs the question: does stop and search actually prevent and deter crime?

The evidence

Contrary to assertions by the likes of prominent figures such as Edward Argar MP, there is weak evidence to support the claim that stop and search is effective at tackling violent crime. In their ten-year study of the Metropolitan Police Service’s use of stop and search, Tiratelli et al. found that this form of policing has little effect on violent crime. Specifically, their findings suggested that stop and search had no impact on rates of robbery, theft, vehicle crime and criminal damage, and only a weak and inconsistent impact on burglary, non-domestic violent crime and total crime. While the researchers did find that increasing the rates of stop and search by 10% correlated with a 1.9% decrease in drug related offending, they caution against drawing the conclusion that stop and search necessarily deters drug offences. Rather, the authors contend that an equally compelling case could be made that stop and search instead encourages people to take precautions to avoid getting caught with drugs.

This is corroborated by McCandless et al.’s study, which found that the increase in weapons searches in some Met police boroughs as part of Operation BLUNT 2 had no impact on police recorded crime. Drawing on the previous research finding ‘that searches reduce the number of “disruptable” crimes by just 0.2%’, Shiner et al. have likewise argued that stop and search has a very limited capacity to intercept criminal offences. The inefficacy of the tactic is further indicated by Home Office statistics revealing that in the year ending 31 March 2023 section 60 powers only resulted in a 5% arrest rate.

The bottom line? Far from the commonly purported claim that stop and search prevents serious violent offences involving weapons, the tactic predominantly targets low-level drug possession. Even if there were a massive upsurge in the number of stop and searches, these powers ultimately have a very limited capacity ‘to generate even modest reductions in crime’.

More harm than good

Not only does stop and search fail to substantially meet its proclaimed aims, but the racially discriminatory implementation of these powers means that they cause immense harm to those subjected to the tactic. Again, the most recent Home Office statistics show that Black people (self-identified and officer-observed) are stop and searched 5.5 times more often than white people. The rate is 1.4 times higher for Asians (self-identified) compared to their white counterparts.

The disproportionate use of stop and search powers remains the case even when accounting for the representation of racialised demographics in both the broader population and in crime rates. Rather than corresponding to a greater propensity to commit offences, Vomfell and Stewart find that the over-representation of racialised groups in stop and search is best explained by over-patrolling in areas with a high population of racialised communities and the over-searching of these communities by officers.

Limitations to the CSJ report

When stop and search is so frequently implemented in such a discriminatory fashion, why does the CSJ find that a majority of Londoners generally, and a majority of Black, Asian, and mixed Londoners specifically, support stop and search?

It is striking that the CSJ’s polling data are contradicted by other research into public trust levels in the police. Only last month a poll conducted by Pickering et al. (commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council) found that just 34.6% of Londoners trust the Met. Drawing on a larger, nationally representative sample of England (8,000 respondents) than the CSJ’s sample size (1,007 respondents), Pickering et al.’s research indicates a significant ’race gap’ in trust levels in the police, with 42.6% of white Brits responding that they trust the police compared with only 32.1% among ’ethnic minority’ groups.

What explains the discrepancy between the CSJ’s polling data and Pickering et al.’s poll? For one, the CSJ’s polling data was collected over the space of less than a week, whereas Pickering et al.’s research was based on a series of surveys gathered in 15 monthly waves (July 2022-September 2023). As well as this, while Pickering et al. carry out a multivariate regression analysis which enabled them to control for variables such as age, income, political environment and crime levels, no such controls were carried out in the CSJ report.

By examining the relationship between the police and the public more holistically, Pickering et al. are in a stronger position to offer a rich insight into how people feel about police powers. In contrast, the CSJ report does not examine its polling data within the broader context of declining public attitudes towards the police generally, and the Met in particular. This tunnel vision approach helps to explain why the CSJ report overlooks mounting evidence that stop and search has consistently proven ineffective in preventing crime and the discriminatory way in which the tool is all-too-frequently implemented when recommending the tactic.

As soon as we heed Angela Davis’s call to think about the larger context in which police stop and search powers take place, including looking at ‘the ways in which racism is embedded in structures of institutions’, it quickly becomes apparent that stop and search is not fit for purpose.

* The CSJ commissioned a poll of 1,007 residents of Greater London aged 18 and over. Fieldwork took place between 22-27 March 2024. The overall sample was weighted to be nationally representative of the target UK population and filtered down to the target audience. The polling was conducted by Survation.

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