Real Reform of UK Police Stop & Search Must Start With Our Drug Laws

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), often referred to as the UK's police watchdog, has published its 2015 review into the use of stop and search by police forces across England and Wales, with some welcome recommendations. The onus now lies on the Home Office to enact tangible and much needed change.

The aim of the report was threefold:

  1. To establish whether police forces had incorporated the recommendations set out in the HMIC’s 2013 report (this report found that 27 percent of stop and searches "did not include sufficient grounds to justify the lawful use of the power");
  2. To investigate the use of traffic stops under section 163 of the Road Traffic Act;  
  3. To consider the use of strip search as part of stop search..

The final two areas were investigated as a direct result of a request by the Home Secretary to the HMIC.

The report concluded that police forces "have made disappointingly slow progress in improving their use of stop and search powers since 2013,” with only one of the ten recommendations -- the use of technology to record stop and search encounters -- considered as having made "good progress." The critique of the use of traffic stops and strip searches also raised many of the same issues in terms of lack of recording and an indication that both powers may be used disproportionately against those from black and ethnic minority groups. 

In light of this, it's clear that much more needs to be done by individual police forces to tackle the problems that exist in the use of stop and search; problems that, for some communities, create a lack of legitimacy and trust.

On the issue of traffic stops, StopWatch, a coalition of young people, academics and NGOs working on improving stop and search, estimates that there are in the region of 5.5 million such stops a year with black people disproportionately targeted. HMIC underscored this with findings that  the percentage of black people who reported being subject to a traffic stop in the last 12 months was almost twice that of white people (7-8 percent of white people reported experiencing a traffic stop compared to 10-14 percent of black people).

On the use of strip search as part of stop and search, Release, with our colleagues at StopWatch, has long campaigned on this issue. I still find it shocking that in the UK the police have the power to strip and search anyone, even those under 18, as part of a stop search. The only legal test that has to be established is one of necessity, which sets a dangerously low threshold.

The HMIC highlighted their significant concerns about the use of the power, reporting that only four forces out of 44 had a policy in place that dealt with the use of strip search as part of a stop search. The other forty forces could get away with providing "no information about these highly intrusive searches." As such, the HMIC was unable to report on the number of strip searches carried out by police forces in England and Wales and described levels of scrutiny and accountability to be "very weak."

The recommendations of the HMIC in respect of this power, as with traffic stops, was increased transparency through data recording and a revision of Code A to provide greater clarity both in relation to grounds and procedure.

The report overall demonstrates that the HMIC is an organization that wants to effect change within the rank and file of the force. It should be congratulated on this review as its language is tough in terms of being critical of those forces – which is the majority - failing to reform the use of stop and search.

There is a real commitment to reforming the use of traffic and strip searches, at least in securing greater transparency in the use of these powers. However, in relation to strip search more needs to be done, and it is our position that no one should be subject to such an intrusive and humiliating procedure unless a threshold of arrest has been met. That is why we would call on whoever is in the Home Office come May 2015 to address the use of strip search as part of stop and search as a matter of urgency.

Glaringly, a major issue that was not mentioned once in the report is that of drug searches which are the major driver of stop and search, and the most likely grounds for strip searches. It is worth noting that the HMIC report of 2013 identified that the "vast majority of searches for drugs were for low-level possession." For there to be any meaningful reform of stop and search we have to tackle this issue. Nowhere is this point more evident than when looking at the stop and search figures for the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS).

It should be noted that the MPS has been successful at significantly reducing the numbers of street stop and searches from a high of half a million in 2010, of which 50% were for drugs (278,762). The arrest rate for drugs searches that year was a shockingly low 6%, Release’s research into racial disparity and drugs policing confirmed. Since 2010 the numbers have fallen to less than 200,000 people searched in London in the last 12 months; however, the percentage of drug searches has risen from 50 percent to 60 percent. 

January 2015 figures show the percentage of drug searches carried out in that month formed 65.2 percent of all searches, with the arrest rate still extremely low; just 11 percent.

Despite some patchy reform in the use of stop and search it is clear that low-level possession of drugs is still driving this type of policing. If we want real reform of stop and search we have to reform our drug laws. We need to stop using the criminal justice system to respond to the possession of drugs for personal use. If we did this it would end the unnecessary harassment of tens of thousands of people a year and possibly lead to improved relationships between the police and communities.