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ANALYSIS:

We spent seven years observing English police stop and search – here’s what we found

Police officers on duty

Police use of stop and search has been widely scrutinised and regularly debated; but as Dr Mike Rowe of the University of Liverpool and Dr Geoff Pearson of the University of Manchester discovered during a seven-year study of two police forces, ‘stop and accounts’ and vehicle stops receive much less attention, yet can be just as damaging if used disproportionately.

When the British politician Dawn Butler was stopped by police while travelling in a friend’s car earlier this year, she accused the police of institutional racism. The same thing happened to Olympic athlete Bianca Williams in July.

In this context, it is extremely positive to hear that police traffic stops in London will be reviewed as part of a plan to “recognise and address the impact that some police tactics used disproportionately on black people is having”.

Much less scrutinised are powers to stop vehicles (used to stop Butler and Williams) under the Road Traffic Act and the practice of requiring people to ‘stop and account’ – effectively asking them to explain who they are and what they are doing.

Such action is desperately needed. Black people in the UK are nine times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by the police, recent government statistics show. Combined with a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, stop and search has rarely been out of the news and remains controversial.

Over the last seven years, we carried out observations with police officers from two English forces. While numbers of stop and searches have declined since 2014, the disproportionate use on young black men continues to cause concern.

Stop and search is a longstanding police power, the purpose of which is to allow police officers to find and seize prohibited items where they have reasonable grounds to believe that a person is carrying them. Much less scrutinised are powers to stop vehicles (used to stop Butler and Williams) under the Road Traffic Act and the practice of requiring people to ‘stop and account’ – effectively asking them to explain who they are and what they are doing.

Disproportionate use of stop and search against young black men can only be fully understood if we also consider the use of powers to stop vehicles and to stop and account.

As we outline in our new book, it was very rare for us to witness stop and searches that uncovered stolen or prohibited items: of the 146 people we observed being searched, only 12 such items were found. Although we observed some searches that were carried out without reasonable grounds, and some that went unrecorded, we did not witness overt racial discrimination or profiling in the use of the powers.

But our findings on stop and account and vehicle stop checks potentially shine a light on why these powers may disproportionately affect black people.

Reasonable grounds

Most of the searches we observed were not based on any specific intelligence that a person was carrying a stolen or prohibited item. Most followed a stop and account or vehicle stop check.

Unlike a stop and search, stop and accounts and vehicle stop checks do not need to be recorded. But they are intrusive, and people who are subjected to frequent stops, even if these do not lead to a search, can understandably become upset.

These were typically initiated by police officers as a result of seeing something that aroused their interest or suspicion; a pedestrian walking late at night in a high crime area, for example, or a group of young men in a sporty hatchback. In contrast to a stop and search, stopping a vehicle or detaining a citizen to ask questions requires neither grounds nor explanation.

Once a person or vehicle of interest had been stopped, the officer may then escalate this to a search, giving various reasons often based on a subjective view of suspicious demeanour. Officers might become suspicious if a person appears nervous and shifty, for example, or, conversely, if they appear overconfident.

In many cases we observed, officers identified the smell of cannabis as their reason to proceed to a search. In 2017, the College of Policing gave guidance that a “smell of cannabis” should no longer be grounds alone to conduct a search. The effect of this guidance has, however, been limited because officers can normally find other grounds to support a decision to conduct search where they wish to do so.

Unlike a stop and search, stop and accounts and vehicle stop checks do not need to be recorded, either formally or on a body-worn camera. But they are intrusive, and people who are subjected to frequent stops, even if these do not lead to a search, can understandably become upset.

Keeping a record

After the MacPherson report into the investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1993 found the Metropolitan Police were ‘institutionally racist’, stop and accounts were recorded for several years.

This generated a record, but was burdensome in terms of time – the person already inconvenienced was expected to stand around while the officer took details and completed a form. From 2010, police forces were no longer required to make records of stop and account. Most (if not all) forces have stopped doing so.

We can see no reason why details of vehicle stop checks should not be recorded. This would create vital information about who is being stopped, when, and for what reason, which would enable a deeper understanding of why black people are so much more likely to be searched than white people.

Vehicle stops have never been recorded or reported externally, even though – in contrast to stop and account – it is a criminal offence not to comply. Nor does any reason need to be given for the decision to pull a vehicle over.

Many of the vehicle stops that we observed could be justified for Road Traffic Act reasons or as a result of intelligence, but some were stopped for less clear reasons. Late at night, officers regularly stopped vehicles for no other reason than that they wanted to know who was out and about; a sporty model, or a car with young men on board, would arouse particular attention. It is easy to see how certain groups can become targets for repeated stops that may in turn escalate to a stop search.

Recording stop and accounts would probably place too much burden on both officers and members of the public. But we can see no reason why details of vehicle stop checks should not be recorded. This would create vital information about who is being stopped, when, and for what reason, which would enable a deeper understanding of why black people are so much more likely to be searched than white people.

Our research suggests that requiring such a record would also reduce the overall number of black people who are stopped and subsequently searched. On its own, this would not deal with the problem, but it would be a start, and doing nothing is not a viable option.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


8 Responses to “We spent seven years observing English police stop and search – here’s what we found”

  1. Montell Neufville Montell Neufville says:

    Good article. I agree with the suggestions with regards to road stops. The stop and accounts are more complicated because in law there is no such policing power. Having conducted a lot of training with police officers and also with members of the community the problem seems to be a small number of officers.

    The majority use their powers fairly but supervisors senior officers and sometimes even anti corruption divisions or professional standards often fail to investigate or to even understand the issues highlighted

    It can be beneficial for police officers to get to know members of communities and to build trust and understanding. But their work can be damaged by colleagues to use their powers unfairly or unlawfully.

    More work needs to be carried out starting with supervisors (inspectors and sergeants) to ensure that they hold themselves and each other to account for the fair and lawful use of their powers. In addition senior officers should ensure that all officers who work in response, anti gang units and other police divisions who are likely to use the powers frequently are trained

  2. Avatar Richard Bennett says:

    Readers of this article might benefit from seeing the current advice from the College of Policing in respect of the use of stop and search. The guidance is contained in the comprehensive College APP on stop and search (https://www.app.college.police.uk/app-content/stop-and-search/).
    The following extract sets out a little of the detail in respect of the role that the smell of cannabis ought to play in decision making by officers. As can be seen the advice is that multiple factors should be used when considering grounds for search.

    ‘PACE Code A states that reasonable grounds for suspicion must relate to the likelihood that the object in question will be found. It also says that, in the absence of specific intelligence or information, reasonable grounds may exist on the basis of someone’s behaviour, and that searches are more likely to be effective and legitimate when their grounds are based on multiple objective factors. This would suggest it is not good practice for an officer to base his or her grounds for search on a single factor, such as the smell of cannabis alone or an indication from a drugs dog. College research, carried out in two forces, has also concluded that behavioural factors should play a more prominent role than the smell of cannabis in officers’ decisions to search for cannabis2.
    Guidance for practitioners conducting and supervising searches
    To help an officer decide if their grounds for a cannabis search are reasonable, they should ask themselves the following questions:
    • Attribution – Can the smell of cannabis be attributed to a specific person?
    o If there is a group of people together – either in an area or vehicle – can I attribute
    the smell and/or suspicion to particular members of the group?
    o Could the smell have come from somewhere or someone else, ie, a previous
    occupant of the area/vehicle?
    • Likelihood – How likely is it that I will find the cannabis I can smell on this specific person?
    • Genuine suspicion – Taking everything into account, do I have a genuine suspicion that I will find cannabis on this person and is there an objective basis for that suspicion based on facts, information and/or intelligence?
    • Reasonable person – How would my grounds sound to a reasonable person? Would they reach the same conclusion as me, as required by PACE Code A?

    Richard Bennett
    Faculty Lead: Uniformed Policing
    College of Policing

  3. Avatar rh533 says:

    Not for the first time, College guidance is long-winded, nuanced and ends up sitting on the fence. This is not particularly helpful to the frontline officer making a decision in a short space of time.
    Scenario – three youths are found in a recreation ground with no-one else nearby. There is a strong smell of cannabis although none of them are smoking when approached. There are no other suspicious circumstances or intelligence.
    Guidance –
    ‘it is not good practice for an officer to base his or her grounds for search on a single factor, such as the smell of cannabis alone’
    ‘behavioural factors should play a more prominent role than the smell of cannabis in officers’ decisions to search for cannabis’.
    Can this be serious? Somewhere along the line, the investigation of a criminal offence seems to have been minimised or forgotten. Fortunately the guidance also points in the opposite direction:
    – ‘Would (a reasonable person) reach the same conclusion as me?’
    Surely the vast majority of the public – particularly if they had reported it – would expect a search to take place???
    The dividing line between oppressive behaviour and neglect of duty (easily the most common category of complaint) has been blurred to the point of invisibility.
    Montell Neufville’s comments are extremely pertinent but there is no absolute answer.

  4. Avatar PC_Plod says:

    Amazing. An entire piece about disproportionate use of a policing tactic on a single demographic, without a single mention of the horrendous (and disproportionate) scourge of knife crime and murders within that very same demographic. An intellectually dishonest article.

  5. Montell Neufville Montell Neufville says:

    Thanks for that Richard. Very insightful. Its interesting the two comments from anonymous people. Why not comment under names?

    Regarding rh533 policing is a judgement basis. Its impossible to write an exact operational policy for every single situation as multiple factors may be present. There are far too many needless stop and searches resulting in no finds. The percentage of MDA Sec 23 is fast approaching 75% of all stop and searches. Stop and search as well as all policing work is not an exact science. Some officers do numerous jobs per day and many per week. in canteen and car discussions with colleagues you often find you may have made different decisions given the same circumstances. In every group of police officers there are role models and leaders to learn from and inspire. We all come across them

    PC-plod which may or may not be your real name, Its in everyone’s interest to tackle all forms of crime including those more serious offences such as knife crime, going equipped etc. if we all agree that tackling these serious crimes are the most important can you please advise why both stop and searches and arrests for this important priority has been decreasing year on year over the past decade as a proportion of all stop searches? Arrests for knives are now at an all time low. The important point is officers should make their judgements based on the factors they see in front of them and on the intelligence.

  6. Avatar PC_Plod says:

    Montell,

    I can only assume you are not a police officer if you have never heard of OPSEC or protecting your identity? It was explained on Day 1 at training school all those years ago…

    Stop & searches started going down during Theresa May’s time in office when the rules changed dramatically so that obvious indicators of possession of unlawful articles were to be deemed insufficient for the purposes of informing the reasonable grounds upon which stop & searches were predicated. The new guidance was grey, vague and of little help. See rh533’s comments for an example of the vague and ambiguous policies which have been introduced in recent times.

    Stats continued going down as frontline officers realised they would not be supported by their management in the event of complaints or tabloid media smears of their lawful and justified actions. See – Bianca Williams, Dawn Butler, etcera ad infinitum. Why be proactive when you’ll get chucked under the bus in the media or hung out to dry by professional standards?

  7. Avatar rh533 says:

    Some useful points and it would be interesting to see some wider contributions.
    I’m not particularly surprised if drugs-related searches are 75% of the total. Out walking the dog – hardly scientific but it gives some indication (middle of the road, Home Counties town) – nowadays, I smell cannabis on people, more often than tobacco. It’s obvious, you can smell it 30-40 metres away, although there may be no behavioral or intelligence indicators. I think the ubiquity might be accounted for, by polarised opinions around cannabis so that in many people’s minds, it has a semi-legal status. But it hasn’t, and the primary role of police is to prevent and detect, like any other offence. If we don’t want it to be an offence, we need to change the legislation.
    Which brings us to the question – if I were still a serving officer instead of a retired dog walker, would I do a stop search or not?
    For – Possession is a criminal offence. The job of the police to to prevent and detect. In most contexts, commentators prefer prevention and the suspicion is clear. The fact of searching may deter, irrespective of the result.
    Against – Community relations would be maintained, possibly at the expense of overlooking criminal conduct. There is a fair chance that the suspect has finished/discarded their joint, so there may well be a negative search result. Searches are intrusive and a complaint may be forthcoming – possibly amounting to job-threatening discrimination/gross misconduct. Official support is likely to be ambiguous at best, since no one wants to be associated with controversy of this kind. Furthermore – if a possibly negative search is avoided, the rate of positive ones might increase.
    Overall I would probably not make the search. But the decision would be based on self preservation so I would feel deeply uncomfortable about it.
    In the meantime, we shouldn’t get too hung up on stats. The prevention/suppression aspect is significant irrespective of outcomes.

  8. Montell Neufville Montell Neufville says:

    rh533 these are really important observations. I try to reassure officers all the time that scrutiny panels are not there to deter officers from investigating crime or to make them feel bad in any way for doing their job, Communities don’t want criminal activity to be happening, they do want officers to protect and investigate. More often than not its about the quality of the encounter. I also agree that its not all about statistics. You can have high rates of disproportionality or low arrest rates and on examination they may still be ok.

    I’m not a police officer I’m a trainer and advisor. In my experience senior officers “bosses” are far more supportive than what the rank tends to think. Professional Standards don’t automatically take the side of complainants in-fact very few complaints are upheld.

    I just want to add something about Theresa May and the Best Use of stop and Search. The then Home secretary was reading a report from HMIC the inspectorate. They were not her own words they were based from inspecting 43 police forces. The Home Secretary then asked the NCPP to work with the college of police to define Reasonable Grounds. Many in policing demonise TM however the definition of Reasonable Grounds came about from senior officers and the college.

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