This Commons Library briefing paper provides an overview of current police stop and search powers. It outlines evidence which has been gathered to measure the effectiveness of these powers at reducing and detecting crime and sets out a brief history of recent stop and search reforms. Whilst the report does not specifically deal with the impact of this power on the children it is used on, it is clearly a police practice which affects them significantly.
The report is published as part of a series of briefing papers on police powers and sets out a basic overview of the types of stop and search powers which are currently available to the police. It then looks at how these powers are used in practice, specifically analysing data for the year ending 31 March 2020 and examining the impact that the exercise of these powers is having on reducing and deterring crime.
Some of the key findings of the report are as follows:
- Increase in the number of searches: The report states that while police forces have reduced their use of stop and search over the last 10 years overall, there has been a recent increase in the number of searches. It states that 577,000 searches were conducted in 2019/20 which is 58% fewer than in 2009/10 but 52% higher than in 2018/19. [page 15]
- Reasons for using the power: The report found that whilst police leaders say stop and search is being targeted to those that they suspect are carrying knives and weapons this is not reflected in the data. Around 63% of all reasonable grounds searches in 2019/20 were conducted to find controlled drugs. It notes that Adrian Hanstock, Deputy Chief Constable of the British Transport Police and National Police Chief’s Council’s lead for stop and search, has conceded that whilst many support the use of stop and search in response to violent crime the police are “faced with a dichotomy in needing to explain why the majority of grounds for search are to find drugs”. [page 16/17]
- Lack of up to date data: The report notes that it is difficult to provide an up to date assessment of police compliance with the law and guidance on stop and search. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has not published a national assessment of the proportion of searches conducted without reasonable grounds since 2017. Complaint data does not provide an accurate assessment because they do not know many people did not complain when they are mistreated. HMICFRS has however, been repeatedly critical of how forces monitor their own records. They argue that forces could do more to further improve and maintain standards. [page 19]
- Disproportionate use on BME individuals: The report found that Black and Minority Ethnic (‘BME’) people were four times more likely to be searched than white people in 2019/20. The difference was particularly pronounced for black people, who were nine times more likely to be searched than white people. [page 15/16]
- Lack of evidence of effectiveness: Notably the report finds that there is little evidence to suggest that stop and search provides an effective deterrent to offending. The use of stop and search appears to cause only marginal positive effects on levels of some crime types. Stop and search may be more effective at detecting criminals, but most searches result in officers finding nothing. Officers found nothing in 72% of searches in 2018/19 whereas 22% of searches resulted in a criminal justice outcome linked to the purpose of the search. It is estimated that 8% of all 2018/19 arrests were generated by a stop and search encounter. [Page 21]
- Increasing racial disparity: The disparity between the search rate for black and white people has increased since 2009/10. This is the result of a larger reduction in the number of white people searched than black people. There is no evidence to suggest that BME people are more likely to carry items that officers have powers to search for. Neither is there evidence that suggests they are more likely to be involved in criminality associated with stop and search enforcement. [page 22]
This report is extremely important as it highlights the fact that there is remarkably little evidence to suggest that stop and search works either as deterrent or as an investigatory power. The data collected undoubtedly calls into question whether the continued use of this police power can be justified, particularly in light of its disproportionate use against BME individuals.
As set out above, it starkly demonstrates the fact that BME individuals are four times more likely to be searched than white people, with black people being nine times more likely to be searched than white people. This alone should be cause of alarm and prompt a call for serious reconsideration of the approach, particularly given that the disparity between the search rate for black and white people has been increasing since 2009/10.
The report does not specifically discuss the use of stop and search powers against children and young people. There is actually very little publicly available data on how many stops are being carried out specifically on children and young people in the UK. However, we do know that in July 2020 Chair, Yvette Cooper, told the Home Affairs Committee that analysis showed in May 2020 alone 10,000 black males in London aged 15 to 25 were stopped and searched.  Moreover, it was said that of all the searches carried out during this month more than 80% of the individuals stopped weren’t found to be carrying, or doing, anything that required further action. Therefore, while this report does not specifically break down the figures in relation to the age of those stopped and searched, young people are clearly a demographic, particularly young black men living in London, who the findings of the report are relevant to.
This report comes at an important time as the Home Office are currently proposing to create a new Court Order that will give the police an additional power to stop and search a person convicted of certain knife offences for a period of up to two years from the start of the order or following a custodial sentence. Given the lack of evidence of the effectiveness of the current stop and search measures, we would suggest that this is an unnecessary addition to police powers which has the potential of increasing the disproportionate use of stop and search on BME individuals. As it stands, the proposal is that this power will not be used in relation to children but the results of the consultation are not yet known. The very fact the Home Office is making moves to expand stop and search, despite their own research suggesting that higher search rates may have no discernible crime-reducing effects, signals a worrying reluctance to address the shortcomings of this police power.
Written by Maeve Keenan, Associate, Kingsley Napley
 Serious Violence Reduction Orders: A new court order to target known knife carriers, government consultation, ends 8 November 2020