“The police use of stop and search powers is too often ineffective in tackling crime”
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary
It’s clear that it’s racially polarising. But is it effective as a policing tactic? How successful should stop and search be to justify the tension it causes?
FactCheck examines stop and search.
Stop and search is a tool in investigative policing – when police want proactively to stop crime before it happens or before it is reported.
The key justification for stop and search is the number of arrests that result from it. The ratio of arrests to the total number of stops is one way to measure the effectiveness of the tactic. Is it helping the police catch criminals?
Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May is one person who thinks not.
The police in England and Wales stopped and searched 1.1 million people in 2011/12 under section 1 of the police and criminal Evidence Act (PACE).
Nine per cent of the people stopped were arrested. That proportion is the same as it was the year before.
It means that police in England and Wales last year spent time searching 1.09m people who were not committing crimes and didn’t help with any criminal investigations.
Is an investigative tactic with a 9 per cent effectiveness rate a good use of resources? Home Secretary Theresa May thinks not.
Community relations aside, her rationale is that any police activity with such a low productivity rate is not a good use of police time.
Hackney gets it right
The Met is one police force that has acknowledged that increasing the arrest-to-stop ratio of stop and search is crucial to justifying it.
They’ve made an effort since 2011 to increase that ratio to 20 per cent, an officer in the stop and search bureau told Channel 4 News. Overall a rate of about 15 per cent had been achieved by November 2013, with ratios varying between different boroughs – a low 9 per cent arrest rate in Richmond and a more successfully targeted 19.9 per cent in Hackney.
Stronger suspicions make for more arrests
One clear measure that makes stop and search more “effective”, or gives a higher arrest ratio, is when police officers are required to provide reasons for their searches. Searches done under laws where no reason or suspicion is needed tend to be the least effective in terms of arrests and the most biased in terms of the ethnic ratios of people searched.
Stop and searches done under section 60 of the public order act show this up more clearly. This law allows for the police to stop and search anyone in a given area at a time when there is a threat of violence. Simply being in the area means police can search you and no individual suspicion is required.
Under section 60, the arrest ratio is a low 3 per cent out of 46,961 such searches in 2011/12.
Stop and searches done under the terrorism act’s section 43, which again has a lower threshold of evidence, also have a lower arrest rate. Some 582 searches had a 5.5 per cent arrest rate in 2011/12.
Stopped for looking furtive?
Why do police search some people and not others? Minority groups suspect strong racial stereotyping and prejudice is at play when police decide who to stop and search. The official reasons are that 50 per cent of the time officers suspect a person is carrying drugs, and 21 per cent of the time they suspect the person is carrying stolen goods.
But the grounds to suspect someone might be committing that offence – that one particular pedestrian might be carrying drugs and not another – are hazier and rely on anecdotal evidence.
Professor Ben Bowling of Kings College London has interviewed police officers for several papers about stop and search.
“The kinds of grounds that are given are movements – running, hurrying and loitering, as a grounds for suspicions,” he said.
In his view the grounds officers base decisions on are often “flimsy”:
“The objects for search tend to be drugs or stolen or goods, but the grounds for the search tend to be flimsy. Looking furtive. Police find it incredibly difficult to articulate the grounds of their hunches, and many of them – too many of them – are based on hunches and speculation.”
It should also be noted that over a quarter of standard stop and searches records don’t include a reason for why police officers searched a person, according to the latest research from HMIC.
The Met, Theresa May and community groups seem to agree on one thing: the 9 per cent arrest rate is not good enough. What is good enough?
The Met has set a 20 per cent arrest ratio as a goal. But Professor Bowling thinks the police should get it right the majority of the time when they stop someone on suspicion of committing a crime. He argues for a 51 per cent rule.
“The arrest rate can also be taken as a measure of the strength and reasonableness of the grounds for suspicion,” Prof Bowling wrote in his submission to a Home Office consultation on stop and search. “If police officers generally had very strong grounds – based on objective evidence or information – to suspect that a person is in possession of a weapon, for example, we would expect a ‘result’ (in terms of arrest) more often than not.”
He told Channel 4 News: “That they’ve started using their intelligence and that arrest rates have started going up to 20-25 per cent – hooray, I’m in support of that. Does it go far enough? I don’t think so. I would struggle to put a number on it. That has to be a discussion for police and communities.
“But I would like to see them getting it right more often than they get it wrong.”