The Realities of Stop & Search

This article by Estelle du Boulay appears issue 33 of Agenda, the magazine of Race on the Agenda (ROTA)

For a period of about twenty-four hours after the release of the Home Secretary’s report on the ‘Tackling Knives Action Programme’ in December 2008, the police tactic of using stop and search as an effective means of catching criminals seemed to finally to shaken off the controversy that has clung to it since criticism by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1998. Stop-and-search works, the government said. But within a day of ministers claiming a victory in its fight against a weapons-culture amongst young people, accusations were mounting of manipulation of the statistics. If stop and search is genuinely effective, critics asked, why spin the evidence? Where were the real figures to back it up the claims for its use?

However, whilst the answer may be important, not least to address concerns that too often statistics are used to justify policy rather than drive decision-making, allowing the dominant dialogue on stop and search to focus primarily on statistics diverts attention from the root problems that this police tactic presents at a community level; around issues of race discrimination and effectively combating crime.

Black communities have always suffered the brunt of police stop and search powers; from the days of the hated Sus laws – widely condemned for being used to racially profile – to the barely shifting statistic, highlighted recently by Doreen Lawrence on the 10 year anniversary of the Lawrence Inquiry Report: “There has been no long term drop in stop and search within the black community – today black people are seven times more likely to be searched – this is not progress.” The cost of this is permanent tension between black communities and the police, with generations growing up accustomed to being the target of criminalisation and poor treatment. The conclusions of the Metropolitan Police Association Youth Scrutiny (2008) are hardly surprising in highlighting that initial negative experiences with police are formative in defining later attitudes towards police and authorities, an area that must be addressed.

Stop & Search – Effectiveness

The effectiveness of tackling crime through arbitrary stop and search compared to using intelligence-led policing is subject to much criticism. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 requires an officer to have ‘reasonable suspicion’ before stopping someone, the test being that any given person in the same circumstances could objectively have the same suspicion. This definition, designed to give the term some foundation beyond just being a mere hunch, is supposed to protect citizens and aide officers by providing clear boundaries. It follows a school of thought that without the power to act on suspicion, the ability of the police to investigate and solve crime would be severely marginalised. However, one need look no further than the tragic case of Jean Charles de Menezes to understand the inherent minefield of problems in defining ‘suspicious behaviour’; the innocent actions of Mr Menezes in boarding, then alighting, from a bus and using a mobile phone outside a tube station were the acts cited as suspicious during the surveillance operation that eventually resulted in him being shot dead. This grey area is also borne out by conviction statistics related to stop and search that rarely relate to the grounds for suspicion under which the stop originally occurred.


Despite these systemic flaws, recommendation 66 of the Lawrence Inquiry (implemented in 2004) sought to at least to bring about police accountability for stops through the introduction of detailed receipts. Whilst receipts are a step in the right direction, determining whether a person’s behaviour can been described as suspicious, for instance ‘Mr X smelt of cannabis’, is notoriously difficult to either prove or dispute after the event and often comes down to a case of one person’s word against another. In the event of an arrest and a case going to Magistrates court, where typically several uniformed officers are giving evidence against a defendant, the weight of trust appears to be given routinely to the account of the officers. Against these odds, the average person is not only disadvantaged in any challenge of a police account but also likely to be discouraged from even raising it in the first place. Sadly, it is our experience at NMP that this is one of the primary reasons why people will refuse a receipt even when offered – they question the value of collecting a piece of paper recording what they felt was as an unfair stop when they perceive ‘the system’ as unable to provide them with any chance of redress.

Despite the fundamental problems around ‘reasonable suspicion’, being stopped and searched under PACE, with its minimal accountability, is now a better option compared to what has followed in recent years. Stops under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 require no reasonable suspicion and unsurprisingly have yet to result in a single person being charged with a terrorism-related offence. Section 60 of the Crime Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the legislation being used to tackle knife crime, allows stops to be carried out on anyone who happens to be in a designated area such as a tube station, is drawing comparisons to Sus laws in both its application and resentment it is causing in black communities.

Worrying developments to come are street policing measures during the 2012 Olympics in east London. During his time as Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner, Tarique Ghaffur was quoted as raising the prospect of armed US and Israeli police officers patrolling the streets of London during the Games.


The reality is that it is very difficult to succeed in any complaint against a police officer. Lawrence Barker of the Police Action Lawyers Group states “IPCC statistics tell us that just 5% of complaints against the MPS that concluded last year were upheld. Despite significant concerns with the present system, the IPCC is seeking to reduce its supervisory involvement in the complaints process.” The recent case of comedian Mark Thomas, who successfully challenged the legality of a search because the grounds for suspicion were stated on his receipt as ‘looking over confident’, does little to inspire confidence even when a complaint is upheld. The action taken against the officer in his case was ‘words of advice’. This hardly sends out a message of discouragement to police who abuse their powers either unwittingly or otherwise.

Penalty Notices

A new trend affecting the territory of street stops and police complaints is the apparent increase in the issuing of Public Order Section 5 Penalty Notices. These on-the-spot penalty fines are commonly served on a person by an officer for ‘causing harassment, alarm or distress’ in a situation where there has been an altercation with the police. Challenging a penalty notice at a Magistrates court is seen as risky as it is likely to come down to one person’s word against another and the cost of losing can be a criminal record and an increased fine. The alternative is to accept the notice and pay the fine, which despite not resulting in a criminal record, is still perceived as an admission of guilt. An individual wishing to complain about police misconduct has severely limited chances of success with a penalty notice for ‘harassment, alarm and distress’ against their name. A cynical view of this situation is that they provide a fait-accompli to any officer wishing to eliminate the chances of a complaint being upheld against them. NMP has seen a marked increase in the issuing of these in the past two years and is currently working with a number of equally concerned law firms to investigate the usage of these.

Reality of experience

To truly understand stop and search it is vital to look at the real experience of people. At NMP we come into regular contact with a three strands of people from BME backgrounds who have experienced or are affected by stop and search: those who come to us directly for casework support to get advice or make a complaint (either the person themselves or a concerned friend or family member on their behalf); those we meet through community outreach work who share their experiences with us (for example participants in a training workshop from youth groups or refugee groups) and those we meet through randomly witnessing searches first-hand on the street (this is a personal choice that workers at NMP often take; to stay and observe a stop out of concern for the welfare of the person being stopped and to see if it is being carried out in accordance with the law). This allows our view to be informed by a broad spread of experiences, not only the ‘worst cases’ as might be expected from a monitoring organisation. Despite the differing circumstances in which we meet people and their differing attitudes towards the police as an institution, we find that perceptions and experiences of stop and search are almost entirely negative.

Firstly, from our own casework, experiences of police stops are often brutal. If we had received only one case of a person reporting being jumped from behind by either uniformed or plain clothes officers with no warning, this would be one too many. Unfortunately, the figure is higher. Sadly, reports of being taunted with racist jibes, pinned to the ground, beaten up and dragged across the pavement are not unusual. For NMP, a statistic that would be of real value would be the number of people who start out being randomly stopped by the police and end up either being treated in custody by a police doctor. Statistics for this however, are not available.

Secondly, from our community outreach work, the overwhelming impression we gain is disillusionment and distrust with police due to a sense of utter powerlessness felt in relation to stop and search. This is the greatest own goal in terms of police community relations, because a truly committed and effective approach to tackling crime relies on the trust, engagement and co-operation of these communities, who instead are alienated and feel targeted.

Thirdly, from stops witnessed on the street, these are too few (between 10 and 20) to confidently draw any conclusion of a ‘collective experience’, but a personal impression is that the dialogue during a stop plays great significance in how the situation develops and in shaping perceptions afterwards. Questions asked during a search, e.g: do you have a criminal record, carry the implication that they must be answered, even though they don’t and the language around acknowledging the right to a receipt, if it is offered at all, is often discouraging.

Fundamentally, there is still no evidence that randomly stopping and searching individuals has any impact on the crimes that worry BME communities and young people in particular. Knife crime and the perception that violence involving weapons is endemic are both increasing. Worse still, the moral panic about these issues have engendered have not led to a shift in the tactics used by the police – instead, police officers are encouraged to keep on stopping a growing number of people on the basis of that old excuse, ‘those who are innocent have nothing to fear’. Little consideration, beyond token concerns by bodies like the Metropolitan Police Authority, seems to be given to the long term impact of alienating large numbers of entirely law-abiding citizens who feel they are targeted due to their race, religious appearance or ethnicity.