I’ve been reading a lot in the media recently about the police use of stop and search, I’m not sure what sort impression people are getting but as always, I thought I’d address a few points as I see them. You may or may not agree with them, and if you have a counter point, please share it with me, you never know you might enlighten me and change my mind. Just to be clear I’m not talking about Section 60 CJPOA searches on this blog.
I think the first thing to say is that contrary to popular belief the police do not just randomly pick a member of the public to search them, I wasn’t a police officer in the 70’s or 80’s so I can’t comment on what things were like, I can only go on what I’ve been told and since those times things are done very very differently!
Before I get into the nitty-gritty bits, as I did with my taser blog I’ll start by explaining a stop and search so that those of you who have never been searched understand the process.
In order for an officer to search someone, we must have grounds, or a justification for the search, this doesn’t mean simply that a person looks ‘suspicious’ or an officer just gets a gut feeling. Some of you would be forgiven for thinking that if an officer recognises someone to be a well known local drug dealer or a prolific local burglar then we can search them, but that’s not the case, that may add to the grounds but that in itself is not enough. A few examples of the kinds of things that officers might be that a person matched the description given by a member of the public, someone who is clearly trying avoid police, a strong smell of cannabis on a person, an individual been seen trying to conceal something about their person, they are in a well known high crime area, trying to avoid answering certain questions, seen walking in and out of gardens in an area that they can’t explain why they’re there etc…. This list isn’t exhaustive and there usually has to be more than one reason. There could be many reasons giving an officer a reason to search, but the main point here is, just like with use of force, an officer has to justify their reasons and that officer is fully accountable for why they are searching someone.
Before a search takes place an officer has to explain a number of things, this is commonly referred to as GOWISELY (does not have to be said in this order).
G – Grounds for the search
O – The object that the officer is looking for
W – Show their warrant card (only if not in uniform)
I – The officer has to identify themselves, telling the individual their name
S – Station to which the officer is attached
E – Entitlement to a copy of the stop and search form
L – The legal power in which to search (i.e. Section 23 Misuse of drugs act, Section 1 PACE)
Y – Tell them ‘You are now detained for a search’
Once all this has been a done the search can take place, and even though officers can only search a persons outer layers, it is possible for a strip search if you have reason to believe a person may be concealing something beneath this (not done in public obviously). A stop and search form is then completed with all the details of the search, including the officers name and the reason for the search. It is then handed to the person, along with separate bit of paper detailing how a person may complain to the police if they want to.
The phrase ‘you’re more likely to be searched if you’re black’ needs to be given some perspective. If the police are in an area where predominantly black youths, or Asian youths or anyone from an ethnic minority hang around on the streets or on an estate, then of course if the police are there for a particular reason, they are more likely to be searched. Certainly where I work you are far less likely to see groups of white teenagers congregating in some of the estate stairwells than other ethnic groups, this is simply because of the diverse culture we live in and less white people live in that particular area. This goes back to something I saw on twitter the other day where apparently you’re more likely to be tasered if you’re from an ethnic minority…we can’t then start tasering (or searching in this case) other people just to balance up the figures!
It’s really important to remember that statistics can be manipulated to say whatever someone wants, if you take this country as a whole then this phrase probably isn’t true for someone who lives in Cornwall or some of the counties, but in south east London and some parts of east London where the population is a lot more diverse then it may be true. For that phrase to mean anything you need to look at the make-up of the population in a particular area and not only colour but it also needs to broken down into age groups. Without that it’s just another meaningless statistic that can be banded about and cause unnecessary tension against the police.
If police are stop and searching the wrong people or searching people unnecessarily then why aren’t more complaints substantiated? Surely if that many searches were resented and complaints were made where the officers were found to be wrong then wouldn’t we have heard about it? That to me suggests that people may argue on the street about why they are being stop and searched, but it’s not because the police aren’t justified, but because people just simply don’t like being stop and searched! I saw a comment on twitter (sorry I can’t find the link) that a kid said he didn’t like being stop and searched because the police keep confiscating his knives, I think that says it all really.
I’ve seen a few comments about how the riots were a response to the police use of stop and search, I honestly believe that it’s all too easy to say part of the cause was down to stop and search, surely this was just mindless vandalism and rioting, are they honestly saying that as they were smashing in to JD to pick up some new trainers the looters were thinking ‘this’ll teach the police for searching me’? I don’t think so, but this a whole separate discussion.
I completely agree that individual officers don’t always explain themselves properly and this often winds up members of the public, I’ve witnessed that myself and had to step in and calm the situation down. I freely admit that a few police officers don’t know how to talk to people and their communication skills are shocking but somehow they managed to get into the job, I think it’s these officers that need to be careful with stop and search. Often taking the time to explain the reasons does help people who don’t agree with it to understand, as @MattDelito’s blog explains. I’ve frequently found this to be the case, that when someone objects initially once it’s been explained from our point of view then they understand. Luckily, I seem to have been pretty good so far at talking to people and by the end of most searches people tend to accept my reasons and agree they probably would have done the same thing in my shoes but there are also people who just won’t listen no matter what you are trying to say and won’t agree with you simply because you are the police and they hate the police.
Something else I’ve been wondering, has anyone asked all these people why they don’t like stop and search? I don’t understand the reason for just saying ‘I don’t like being searched’. I agree, it is a very personal thing, and can be an invasion of privacy, but I don’t know about you, if it meant that the police were out there catching robbers, burglars and drug dealers (who are the real scum of our society and who really bring down our communities) I don’t mind being searched, after all, if I matched the description of a local robber I’d hope to be searched so the police might catch that person who’s robbed ten people in the past week. If the problem is with how they are being searched then I fully agree with them and this is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately and rectified.
Certainly part of the discussion that we need to be having is not WHO is being stop and searched but WHY, if the same person is stop and searched three times in the same week, we should be asking ourselves, bearing in mind the search criteria, what is this person doing to be searched so much? In addition to this as @Peter_Kirkham just tweeted, ‘its not always (often) the WHAT but the HOW it is done!’
It’s very obvious that stop and search is needed and is a vital tool for police to combat crime. It’s something that we must not abuse, it’s too easy to forget that although it may be the tenth person that you’re searching that shift it could be their first encounter with the police and that will be their lasting impression of the police. Without proactive policing and intelligence led policing we will only become reactive, which would be a terrible thing for the police. Stop and search is something we must not lose the ability to do!
Quick question, if stop and search was to be abolished, how would you deal with the following scenario?
Police receive a call from a member of the local community stating that they’ve seen a fight take place and there is a male (they give a full description) carrying a knife in his trousers. You then go to the area and see the described male.
Without stop and search police wouldn’t be able to do anything about that individual carrying a knife.
To sum up, I believe the most important issues we need to be looking at with regards to stop and search is not who is being searched, but why and how people are being searched. There could be underlying causes in some of our communities which need addressing, just one example could be down to unemployment, meaning some youths could be hanging around in gangs and on the street a lot more, which may or may not lead to more criminal behaviour (or anti-social behaviour at least). There are many socio-economic factors that could eventually lead down this path, and I think our society and communities need to be looked at a lot more to help address some of these issues before going straight to attacking stop and search.
Finally, although I’ve tried to give a balanced view (I hope I have), we as police officers need to remember Stop and Search needs to be done right EVERYTIME, even if we have grounds and the search is legitimate, manners cost nothing! There’s nothing wrong with being professional and courteous that way people will have no cause for incivility complaints and they are a lot more likely to cooperate with us and respect the job that we’re doing. Anyone not being polite and respectful is just giving the rest of us a bad name and making the job that much harder to do.