UK: Police Focus Increases on Drug Stop & Searches, Despite Futility

Stop and searches may be decreasing in England and Wales, but those carried out for drugs are on the rise as a proportion of the overall figure. Can the police still reasonably say this power is being used to tackle violent crime?

According to the latest Home Office data, police carried out 539,788 stop and searches under section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act 1984 in England and Wales during the year ending March 31, 2015. This marks a dramatic decrease of 40 percent compared to the 2013/14 period and is the largest year-on-year fall.

The number of drug-related stops and searches under section 1 also fell (34 percent) but less significantly than for other reasons. As a result, drug-related stop and searches as a proportion of the overall number increased to 59 percent.

Sadly, this trend is far from new; the proportion of drug-related stop and searches has been on the increase since 2006/7 when it constituted 42 percent of the overall figure. Alarmingly, the proportion of stop and searches carried out for stolen property and offensive weapons decreased on the year by 4 percent and 3 percent respectively.

Additionally, though the rate of arrest rose for drug-related stop and searches to 11 percent of all those searched, this is below the already paltry arrest figure of 14 percent for all suspected crimes.

Not only does the low arrest rate raise serious questions over the use and efficacy of this power, it also undermines police claims that stop and search is vital tool in tackling violent crime. For example, this is taken directly from the London Metropolitan Police's website:

"The use of stop and search powers allow the police to tackle crime (particularly violent crime) and keep our streets safe. [It] is targeted and intelligence led, taking place predominantly in areas where violence is taking place and on people who are known or suspected to be involved in violent crime."

Keeping the focus on London, from September 2014 to August this year, stop and searches for drugs as a proportion of the total outstripped the 2014/15 national stats (see StopWatch's infographic, below).

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) noted in 2013 that the vast majority of searches for drugs were for low-level possession offences, hardly something that would constitute a violent crime. In light of this, it could be argued that police officers are simply going after easy pickings and rarely target those who are suspected of engaging in violent crime.

Furthermore, on the issue of stop and search being "intelligence led," the poor arrest rate would suggest that in its current form it is anything but.

Earlier this year, HMIC published a welcome review of stop and search in England and Wales, with a particular focus on reforming strip search and traffic searches. However, conspicuous in its absence was any mention of drug-related searches. As Release's executive director, Niamh Eastwood, commented at the time of the HMIC report, tangible reform of stop and search will never happen if drugs policing is not properly addressed. In light of the latest figures, this is perhaps more evident than ever.