Under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, a police officer of inspector rank (or above*) may authorise officers to search any designated locality within their police area for up to 24 hours, if they reasonably believe that:
- an incident involving serious violence may take place;
- a dangerous instrument or offensive weapon used in the incident is being carried in any locality within their police area; and
- it is suitable to give an authorisation under this section to find the instrument or weapon; or that
- persons are carrying dangerous instruments or offensive weapons in any locality in his police area without good reason
If, in that time period, an offence has (or is reasonably suspected to have) been committed in connection with any activity within the designated locality, then an officer of or above the rank of superintendent may deem it suitable to extend searches for a further 24 hours.
Section 60 allows any uniformed constable to stop any pedestrian, or any vehicle driver and any passenger(s) and search them and / or their property for offensive weapons or dangerous instruments, regardless of whether there are any grounds for suspecting possession of said articles. This is what makes section 60 a suspicionless search.
If in the course of a search under this section a constable discovers a dangerous instrument or an article which he has reasonable grounds for suspecting to be an offensive weapon, he may seize it.
Failure to stop when required to do so under section 60 powers could be punishable by up to a month’s imprisonment, a level 3 fine, or both.
Any individual who is stopped under the power, either on foot or in a vehicle, is entitled to obtain a written statement of the search from the constable, if they apply for it within 12 months of the occasion.
* An officer of inspector rank must inform an officer of or above the rank of superintendent of the decision, as soon as it is practicable to do so
Police powers to stop and search under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 are specifically used to prevent and detect the carrying of dangerous instruments or offensive weapons.
When first introduced, forces initially used them extensively for the management of football crowds, in anticipation of violence between rival sets of fans. Responsibility for authorisation of the power fell on those of superintendent rank or higher, and extensions of the time period under which the power could be used were limited to an additional 6 hours.
Since then, successive governments have extended section 60 powers to tackle emerging threats, namely terrorist acts and incidents of so-called knife crime. By 2008, the UK government loosened legislative requirements for forces.
- Rank responsibility for authorising the power fell from superintendent to inspector;
- An inspector could not only act in anticipation of violent crime occurring in their area, but also after the occurrence of an incident involving serious violence;
- An inspector gained the authority to act on the reasonable belief of persons carrying dangerous instruments or offensive weapons in their area ‘without good reason’;
- A superintendent could extend the initial period of a section 60 from an additional 6 hours to an additional 24 hours;
- Putting authorisation for a section 60 when it was ‘practicable to do so’ replaced the instruction to do so immediately.
In 2014, the then home secretary Theresa May introduced stricter guidance on the use of section 60 under the Best Use of Stop and Search scheme (BUSS). May’s recommendations to the House of Commons included:
- Raising the level of authorisation of a section 60 to that of a senior officer – that is, an assistant chief constable, commander of the Metropolitan Police, or commander of the City of London Police or above;
- That in anticipation of serious violence, the authorising officer must reasonably believe that an incident involving serious violence ‘will’, rather than ‘may’, take place;
- Limiting the maximum duration of initial authorisation to 15 hours; and
- Participating forces should communicate with the public in areas where a section 60 authorisation is to be put in place in advance (where practicable) and afterwards.
In March 2019, May as prime minister oversaw one of her home secretaries – Sajid Javid – rollback her own scheme's rules by lifting the first two conditions, as part of a pilot of 7 police forces who collectively accounted for over 60% of total national knife crime. Fewer than 6 months later, Javid’s replacement – Priti Patel – removed the third condition of the BUSS scheme, effectively resetting section 60 stipulations for forces to 2008 standards – and extended the pilot to all 43 police forces in England and Wales.
The UK government abolished the pilot in July 2021, permanently relaxing conditions on the use of section 60 stop and search powers ‘to empower police to take more knives off the streets’, as part of its Beating Crime Plan. This was despite the Criminal Justice Alliance, a network of 160 organisations, launching a super-complaint about the police’s use of ‘suspicionless’ stop and searches, which recommended that the power be repealed.
In November 2021, StopWatch and Liberty launched a legal challenge of the lawfulness of the policy decision. This resulted in the government reversing its decision.
However, the Home Office refused to publish an equality impact assessment on the initial decision to expand section 60 powers, claiming the need for a 'safe space' to discuss changes and that it was not in the public interest to disclose such information. This was followed by the home secretary's announcement in May 2022 to permanently lift all BUSS scheme restrictions.
The new rules now state that:
- The threshold that must be met before a section 60 authorisation can be given is that to anticipate that the threat of violence ‘may’ rather than ‘will’ take place;
- The minimum rank of officer able to give an initial section 60 authorisation is restored to that of an inspector;
- The maximum period in which an initial section 60 authorisation can remain in place is up to 24 hours;
- The rank of officer required to extend a Section 60 authorisation is reduced from a senior officer to superintendent, who is authorised to extend the period for another 24 hours;
- Section 60 authorisations no longer needed to be publicly communicated to communities in advance.