Just No Stopping Stop & Search?
Home Office figures released last week provide a bleak picture of increases in stop and search in England and Wales after a decade of decline, continuing racial disparity resulting in a Black person being 9 times more likely to be stopped than a White person, growing dominance of drugs as the reported grounds for a search, and the failure of reforms to improve the most intrusive of police powers, particularly amongst a handful of forces - most notably, the Metropolitan Police Service.
The power to stop and search is one of the most invasive powers available to the police. The disproportionate use of this power amongst Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities is an ‘open secret' which erodes police legitimacy.
A long history of poorly targeted stop and search, and the pursuit of young, Black men in particular, informed the government’s introduction of a number of reforms designed to reduce disparities in the use of such tactics. In 2014, all 43 police forces in England and Wales agreed to improve transparency and accountability in their use of stop and search under the Better Use of Stop and Search (BUSS) scheme.
Declines in the volume of stop and search have been witnessed over the last decade, though the decline has done little to stop glaring racial disparities. Moreover, Home Office figures last year (2018/19) showed the first increase in stop and search against this backdrop of decline.
The Home Office figures released last week for 2019/20 (capturing searches between 1st April 2019 and 31st March 2020) reveal that the use of stop and search has increased for a second time – with a stark 51% increase over the previous year. This means that there were 577,054 stop and searches conducted in 2019/20, excluding searches conducted in Greater Manchester as this force were unable to provide accurate data to the Home Office.
The latest figures reveal that again, Black ethnic minority groups are consistently more likely to be stopped and searched than White people and continue to 'bear the brunt of heavy-handed policing'. For all stop and searches in 2019/20, people self-defining as ‘Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic’ were 4.3 times more likely to be searched than White people. The disparity is particularly pronounced for Black individuals, who are 8.9 times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people.
Home Office figures also reveal that just as in previous years, the search for drugs dominates stop and search. In 2019/20, 63% of searches under the main police powers (Section 1, Police and Criminal Evidence Act, 1984 (PACE) and associated legislation) were for drugs, which dwarfs searches for offensive weapons and stolen property (16% and 10% of searches respectively). This, in part, explains the pronounced racial disparity in stop and search data, given that we know that drug laws are often “imposed most harshly against ethnic minority communities, despite prevalence rates among these groups being no higher than among the White population”.
The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) continues to account for a large proportion of all stop and searches and in 2019/20 — the MPS conducted 48% of all recorded searches. Even when controlling for the size of the City of London’s resident population, in 2019/20 the MPS had the highest stop and search rate (31 searches per 1,000 population), and the highest arrest rate of any force.
The latest figures show that of those 577,054 stop and searches in 2019/20, an overwhelming majority of searches (76%) resulted in no further action taken – 3% higher than in 2018/19. Indeed, most searches result in officers finding nothing. In 2019/20, only 20% of Section 1 PACE (and related legislation) stop and searches did result in an outcome that was linked to the reason for the search - for example, finding MDMA when the reason for the search was suspicion of drug possession. Furthermore, this was the case in only 4% of searches conducted under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 - the controversial legislation which expands the power of the police to stop and search people without any reasonable suspicion.
Dr. Adam Elliott-Cooper and others challenge the continuation of 'a very police intensive exercise which does nothing in terms of improving public safety and requires a huge amount of person power'. Indeed, the central government spend on drug law enforcement and related activities is estimated to be approximately £1.6 billion per annum. In a comparable year, the estimated central government spend on early drug intervention is only £215 million. This, in combination with further funding cuts to such services, have prompted a wave of calls to reallocate this expenditure away from drug law enforcement and towards interventions that reduce harm.
Aside from the inefficacy of stop and search, there are well-documented consequences associated with the search-rate disparities by ethnicity. The House of Commons have reiterated the damage done to police-community relations. The Lammy review directly links stop and search to lower confidence in the police felt by ethnic minorities and as a result, a reduced likelihood to report crime: undermining the police’s own goal of protecting their communities.
As the nation finds itself in the midst of a public health crisis, evidence has emerged — with figures not yet captured by the annually published Home Office statistics — that stop and searches in England and Wales have significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. During May 2020 alone, the MPS conducted 43,913 searches in the City of London. Of these searches, 68.1% were for drugs. Not only is this the highest rate of the use of these powers in over 2 years, but these powers are also being used most in London boroughs suffering the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths. Media sources have focused their attention on reported increases in 'drug offences' during the course of the pandemic, with little focus on the inextricable role of increased stop and search. Police recorded crime often reflects police priorities and activities as opposed to capturing true changes in crime incidence: with officers themselves having previously reported strong managerial pressures to carry out high volumes of searches.
BUSS reforms were intended to strengthen the threshold for ‘reasonable suspicion’, however a recent IOPC investigation — triggered by the Metropolitan Police’s disproportionate use of stop and search — revealed scenarios such as Black men fist-bumping as the grounds for suspicion of exchanging drugs. The investigating organisation’s (IOPC) London Regional Director, Sal Naseem, also reported that “handcuffs were used in nearly all instances where the use of other tactics could have de-escalated the encounter”. The IOPC has now suggested 11 reforms for the MPS to improve its use of stop and search, although given the continued failure of many police forces in England and Wales to fully comply with the reforms set out in the BUSS scheme, isn’t it time that we agree that reform will not fix stop and search?
* Dr. Laura Garius joined Release as policy lead in Autumn, 2020. She is a criminologist and obtained her doctorate from Loughborough University. Laura delivered the Drugs and Society module to students at Nottingham Trent University and has researched both alcohol and drug-related harm. She has conducted research with service users as well as with large scale surveys and advocates for harm-reduction approaches, evidence-based drug policy, and social justice.