Will stop and searches protect or polarise our society?

By Orlando V

In June 2020, a 13-year-old black British boy was stopped and searched by police in South London. Now 15, this same boy has been stopped and searched over 30 times by police. He has since expressed his fear of leaving home and recounts both physical and verbal abuse from police officers.

Similar cases cloud news platforms throughout the UK, so why do the police and government continue to invest in this socially polarising practice?

Police in the UK view stop and searches as a necessary tool to reduce the ever-increasing rates of crime. Many agree, believing that these searches act as a deterrent to rising crime rates and should be praised for their preventative and investigatory nature. Despite this, stop and searches have been the cause of many social, legal and political disputes. Their effectiveness has been queried, and they have been widely labelled as ineffective and racially prejudiced. These claims are not without merit. A Home Office report published in 2021 revealed that people of colour were seven times more likely to be searched than a white person, adding to a longstanding history of social injustice. As a result, the rights of police officers to exercise stop and searches has been heavily criticized. This suggests that today, inconvenient and intrusive stop and searches are socially polarising our society. However, if deployed appropriately, stop and searches could have the potential to reduce crime rates and mend the fractured relationship between the police and the public.

One of the main criticisms of stop and searches is the power that the police have acquired as a result of stop and search legislation. The legal framework which supports stop and searches is composed of two main legislations. The first of these is Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) which states that ‘a constable may search any person or vehicle’ if there are ‘reasonable grounds for suspecting that he will find stolen or prohibited articles’. The second major legislation is section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. It states that ‘if a police officer of or above the rank of inspector reasonably believes that incidents involving serious violence may take place’ they have the right to ‘prevent their occurrence’. Many argue that section 60 gives police officers too much power, allowing them to stop and search without requiring ‘reasonable grounds’. Section 60 has led to the stopping and searching of many thousands of innocent people. In 2020, there were 18,081 stop and searches under section 60, with an arrest rate of just 4%. It is for this reason that the Criminal Justice Alliance have called for the government to repeal section 60, labelling it ‘ineffective’. Arrests from section 1 of PACE, also have low arrest rates. In 2020, 650,009 Section 1 PACE searches resulted in only 13% of suspects being arrested. Statistically speaking the number of stop and searches leading to an arrest is low. A paper published by the British Journal of Criminology wrote that the effect of stop and searches was ‘marginal at best’. This has led to the belief that stop and searches are only eroding relationships between the public, preventing future cooperation and increasing chances of hostility. It is for this reason that many people believe that the government should focus on cutting down on the roots of crime rather than investing in inconvenient stop and searches.

Another major argument as to why stop and searches polarise our society is due to their discriminatory nature. The suspicions that certain minority groups are more likely to be stopped and searched without ‘reasonable grounds’ by police is undeniable. Between April 2020 and March 2021, 697,405 stop and searches were carried out in England and Wales. The figures show that there were 7.5 searches per 1,000 white people, compared with 52.6 searches per 1,000 black people. In 2010, the Equality and Human Rights Commission deduced that ‘PACE may be being used in a discriminatory and unlawful manner’. A recent paper published by StopWatch suggested that people of ethnic minorities are being ‘subjected to relentless searching without a demonstrable legitimate purpose, sometimes several times a day’. Discriminatory stop and searches may be due to cognitive and/or implicit bias. This is when groups of people are perceived differently based on stereotypes unconsciously. Results from the Stephen Lawrence inquiry (from forms filled out by the police and public) backed this claim up, concluding that the police are ‘institutionally racist’. In a recent home office report a police officer said he stops black people more because ‘9 times out of 10 would have drugs’. Police officers hold a great deal of power and racial bias could victimize many people, and decrease trust in the police. The current discriminatory nature of stop and searches is clearly polarising our society. If stop and searches are to protect our society in the future, police officers should be educated to help them overcome this cognitive bias.

Stop and searches could help to protect our society, promoting an overall decrease in rates of crime. Consequently, many believe they are worth the inconvenience caused to the public. Knife crime has risen by 85% in England and Wales since 2014 and stop and searches could help locate people who are illegally in possession of knives or other weapons. Andy Cooke, a police chief constable, stated that in Merseyside in 2018, a decrease in numbers of police officers leads to ‘criminals feeling more safe carrying around knives and guns’. Stop and searches could hence work as a deterrence to people being in possession of weapons or illegal substances on the streets. However, evidence regarding the investigatory nature of stop and searches is sparse. In 2020, Boris Johnson’s government released its Beating Crime Plan. It viewed stop and searches as ‘one of many vital tools used by the police to tackle serious violence and keep our streets safe’. It stated that stop and searches help to protect our society, outlining that the increased powers of police officers led to 74,000 arrests and the removal of 11,000 weapons throughout 2019. Johnson has since outlined his plan to increase police stop and search powers to help where there ‘may’ be violence as well as where there ‘will’ be violence. In 2020, stop and searches resulted in 65,000 criminal acts being discovered and 34,000 arrests. This evidence shows that stop and searches result in lawful arrests and can help our society reap the benefits of safer streets.

Stop and searches could protect our society in the future, developing the practice into an essential tool for policing. This could be achieved through the abolition of unnecessary stop and searches (perhaps with the removal of section 60) and an increase in lawful and respectful stop and searches. The police should also place emphasis on the education of police officers to ensure that cognitive bias is not clouding their judgement when stopping a person. This means that the role of future generations of police will be central to the efficiency of stop and searches. The Procedural Justice Theory has a major role to play in the future to help how society views stop and searches. The Procedural Justice Theory is when people feel they are being treated fairly and with respect and, as a result, reciprocate this respect. This would increase chances of compliance. This underlines how important the nature of stop and searches are. If police officers can respect the public’s rights, ensure transparency and make sure to stop and search people on ‘reasonable grounds’ then this tool will certainly help protect our society from crime in the future.

In conclusion, stop and searches will help protect our society in the future. Stop and searches are a tool and can either be used effectively or ineffectively. Currently, stop and searches are plagued by a lack of understanding, poor communication, racial bias and the unnecessary use of verbal or physical violence. This has led to 5,000 complaints since 2014, with less than 1% of these leading to any legal action. However, changes to current legislation and the continual education of police officers to combat cognitive bias will take the practice in the correct direction. If used effectively and fairly, stop and searches will protect our society and help combat ever-increasing crime rates.

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