HMIC Report: Stop and Search Powers: Are the police using them effectively and fairly?

Some of the most intrusive and contentious powers granted to the police are those of stop and search; but the majority of forces do not understand how to use these powers effectively and fairly to prevent and detect crime, finds a report published today.

After renewed concern about the way police use stop and search powers on the back of the 2011 riots, the Home Secretary commissioned HMIC to conduct an inspection of the use of stop and search powers in all 43 Home Office funded forces in England and Wales.

Over a million stop and search encounters have been recorded every year since 2006; but in 2011/12 only 9% led to arrests. The police use of stop and search powers has been cited as a key concern for police legitimacy and public trust in most of the major public inquiries into policing since the 1970s. While there is much public debate about the disproportionate use of the powers on black and minority ethnic people, there has to date been surprisingly little attention paid – by either the police service or the public – to how effective the use of stop and search powers is in preventing and detecting crime.

The inspection, which included a public survey of over 19,000 people found that:

  • the majority of forces (30) had not developed an understanding of how to use the powers of stop and search so that they are effective in preventing and detecting crime, with too many forces not collecting sufficient information to assess whether or not the use of the powers had been effective;
  • 27% of the 8,783 stop and search records examined by HMIC did not include sufficient grounds to justify the lawful use of the power. The reasons for this include: poor understanding amongst officers about what constitutes the ‘reasonable grounds’ needed to justify a search, poor supervision, and an absence of direction and oversight by senior officers;
  • there is high public support for the use of these powers, but this support diminishes when there is a perception that the police are ‘overusing’ them; and
  • half of forces did nothing to understand the impact that stop and search had on communities, and less than half complied with the requirements of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 code of practice to make arrangements for stop and search records to be scrutinised by the public.

When all findings are considered, HMIC concludes that the priority chief officers give to improving the use of stop and search powers has slipped since the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report in 1999.

HM Inspector of Constabulary, Stephen Otter, said:

“Our inspection found that the exercise, recording, monitoring, supervision and leadership oversight of the use of stop and search powers too often fall short of the requirements of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 code of practice, which sets the standards intended to protect the public from the incorrect and unlawful use of these intrusive powers. There was also insufficient understanding of how stop and search encounters work to prevent and detect crime to secure the effective use of the powers. Urgent action is required to put this right, and our recommendations set out the steps we think necessary to achieve the effective and fair use of these powers.

“We believe it is so important to rectify this quickly that HMIC will be revisiting forces within the next 18 months to assess progress against the recommendations.”

HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Tom Winsor, said:

“The police service in the UK is almost unique in investing its lowest ranking officers with its greatest and most intrusive powers. These include those of stop and search.

“The lawful and proper use of the powers is essential to the maintenance of public confidence and community acceptance of the police, without which the British model of policing by consent cannot function. It is therefore crucial that police officers can show, with the greatest transparency, that they use these powers with the utmost lawfulness and integrity at all times.”

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