It has emerged that the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has been trying to gain approval for reforms to the current law regarding police powers to ‘stop and search’. Downing Street is however unwilling to sanction the changes for fear of appearing to be soft on crime.
When one considers the current problems arising from the police’s use of ‘stop and search’, its inefficiency in achieving results, and general cross-party support for change, the reluctance to implement Theresa May’s proposed alterations is evidentially unreasonable.
There are currently two separate laws which provide the police with the power to conduct a ‘stop and search’. The first; under s.1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 the police must have reasonable grounds for suspecting that stolen or prohibited articles will be found.
The second is under s.60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, whereby police can search someone without suspicion that they are involved in criminal activity, if a senior officer has a reasonable belief that violence has or is about to occur, in a specific area, for a specific length of time, for example between the hours of 13.00 and 16.00 in Trafalgar Square.
In December 2013 Theresa May proposed changes the law with regard to s.60 to reduce the number of ‘stop and searches’. By changing the wording from ‘authorisation from a senior officer who must reasonably believe that violence may take place’ to ‘that violence will take place’ the test becomes much more difficult to satisfy.
Although the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report 2011 – 2012 suggests that there has been a reduction in the use of ‘stop and search’: the use of s.1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 fell from 1,222,378 in the previous year to 1,137,551; and the use of s.60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 fell from 60,963 to 46,961.
The reduction in the use of ‘stop and search’ fails to take account of the discrepancies, and more evidently its disproportionate use against black people, and ethnic minorities. The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that overall black people were six times more likely to be stopped than a white person, and Asian and other ethnic minorities were twice more likely to be ‘stopped and searched’ than a white person. In the West Midlands black people were 29 times more likely to be stopped.
Furthermore, a report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary found that in 27 per cent of 8,783 ‘stop and searches’ surveyed; the police did not record the ‘reasonable’ reasons for carrying out the ‘stop and search’.
In July 2013 Theresa May told the House of Commons that “everybody involved in policing has a duty to make sure that nobody is ever stopped just on the basis of their skin colour or ethnicity.”
The problem with the statistics is that it inevitably leads to accusations of discrimination and racial profiling, accusations which are difficult to dismiss. The damage caused by disproportionately using ‘stop and search’ on black people and ethnic minorities is that it alienates them from the police and creates a culture of distrust. The Government’s former advisor on youth crime, Shaun Bailey, goes as far as to suggest that the current use of ‘stop and search’ “breeds criminals”. I would disagree with this, simply because I believe the causal link is too weak to make such a statement, but it will certainly have a negative impact on people’s perception of the police, and their willingness to co-operate should a situation require it.
Regardless of the racial issues inherent within the use of ‘stop and search’, one can argue that it is ineffective and inefficient. Only nine per cent of ‘stop and searches’ lead to an arrest, with each ‘stop and search’ taking, on average, 16 minutes to conduct and process the paperwork. This amounts to an enormous waste of police time and money if the tactic does not yield results, which at present it is not.
Given the way in which the power can damage public confidence and waste police time, the argument in favour is more political than practical. There appears to be general acceptance that ‘stop and search’ is a useful tool in protecting the public when used sparingly and on the basis of good intelligence. The police are supportive of limited reforms as long as they will not affect public safety, and Theresa May has called for ‘stop and search’ to be “used fairly and in everybody’s interest.”
Why then is Downing Street reluctant? The answer is, once again, the fear of appearing to be ‘soft on crime.’ The fear of appearing ‘soft on crime’ one year before a general election is somewhat understandable given the importance of that political battleground since the 1979 election. What is totally illogical is how the perception applies in reality to Theresa May’s proposed reforms.
‘Stop and search’ is not ‘tough on crime’, with nine per cent of them leading to an arrest, they are not currently a formidable weapon in the fight against crime. When the time wasted conducting the search is factored in, the police are actually being distracted from other work, arguably using police officers more productively and efficiently would be a step towards being ‘tough on crime’ not ‘soft’.
If a Conservative Home Secretary can pass these reforms then it would have far reaching benefits to the perception of the Conservative Party. The current position is that if they implement the reforms, the Conservatives are concerned about the reaction from traditional Conservative Party members and voters, who apparently favour harsh punishments and a firm hand when it comes to dealing with crime. There is also arguably a perception that the Conservative Party represents the interests of the wealthy, and the white majority.
If the Conservative Party were to lead the way in reducing the unnecessary use of ‘stop and search’, considering the racial and community problems inherent within its current use then they can not only claim to have made a positive change, but they will have demonstrated that they are listening to the concerns of those negatively affected.
There is, after all, cross-party support for reform, there is no political risk from any of the major opposition parties should the changes be implemented, any accusation of being ‘soft on crime’ can be dismissed with a cry of hypocrisy.
Furthermore, given their recent embarrassments, one feels that the police may be rather eager for an opportunity to improve the public’s confidence in them. The police have been thoroughly embarrassed by the ‘Plebgate’ row, but much more damagingly it has emerged that senior officers gave instructions to spy on the family of Stephen Lawrence (a young black man who was murdered in 1993 and which the police failed to investigate properly due to what has been described as “institutional racism”) in order to obtain information which would discredit them, whilst another inquiry into the murder investigation was taking place.
The disproportionate use of ‘stop and search’ powers on black people and ethnic minorities has continued to damage the relationship those affected have with the police. Arguably now is the time to limit the use of these powers and hope that by so doing, the police can over time regain the confidence of the communities they serve.