Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services Report: ‘Disproportionate use of police powers: A spotlight on stop and search and the use of force’
This report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services Report (HMICFRS) examines key data on the use of stop and search by police and investigates the implicit bias that may underpin the use of this power. The report lays out the disproportionality that exists in police treatment of BAME people compared to White people, placing the onus on police to provide evidence-based explanations for the discrepancies observed and to better monitor, train and educate officers around this topic.
The evidence shows that there is significant disproportionality in the use of stop and search powers on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic ('BAME') people. In 2019/20, BAME people were stopped and searched at a rate 4.1 times higher than White people. Black people were 8.3 times more likely to be searched than White people, despite the fact that the rate of finding drugs on Black people was slightly lower than for White people.
In the records examined, Black people were 5.7 times more likely to experience force from police than White people, and 9 times more likely to have Tasers used on them. Given this evidence, is it the case that force is being used on Black people simply with less justification, or are there other explanations that can be offered? So far there have been no satisfactory evidenced-based reasons given for the disproportionality overserved. Whilst disproportionality doesn’t necessarily indicate misapplication of powers, it’s important that forces are able to explain any discrepancies and demonstrate that their use of power is lawful and fair.
The report therefore calls for:
- better monitoring, using the wealth of data available from body-worn video footage;
- improved record keeping (recording both the ethnicity of the subject and the ethnicity the officer perceives them to be, so that bias can be identified);
- comprehensive training on de-escalation and communication;
- better understanding amongst police of what constitutes reasonable grounds for a stop and search; and
- the subject of each stop and search to be provided with the grounds for the search.
Police must work to understand the reasons behind the disproportionality seen in the use of force and the use of stop and search, reduce it (where appropriate) and explain it to the public.
HMICFRS states that it is time for a national debate on drug searches. In most cases the rationale for stop and search is suspected drug possession, but the rate at which drugs are found during these searches is low. A large proportion of searches result from something seen or heard by a police officer at the scene (‘self-generated’), and only a quarter of self-generated drug searches actually result in drugs being found. Searches based on accurate and current intelligence are more likely to be effective, but only 9% searches were intelligence led, whereas self-generated searches accounted for 55%. Self-generated searches are more likely to be disproportionate to BAME individuals and to be based on weak, subjective, grounds.
Whilst a legitimate concern, drug possession is not a main strategic focus for forces. Stop and search does little to combat drug supply: it therefore addresses the effect of the problem rather than the underlying cause. One in ten arrests following stop and search were for public order offences after nothing was found. The reality is often that the use of stop and search falls short of law enforcement’s objectives to reduce crime, instead eroding public trust and reducing the likelihood that members of the public will assist the police or report a crime in the future. Forces should therefore carefully consider the extent to which stop and search is furthering their strategic objectives versus the negative effect its disproportionate use is having on police perception in the community.
It is important for practitioners and those involved in the youth justice system to be aware of the disproportionality evidenced in stop and search practices, particularly in cases where the search was self-generated and weak grounds were recorded by the officer. More should be done to investigate the link between self-generated searches (often driven by an officer’s subjective assessment of an individual or situation) and the institutional bias which may lie behind the disproportionality evidenced.
Charlotte Rice, Associate Solicitor, Paul Hastings (Europe) LLP