The Government’s policy on stop and search is once again under the spotlight. In the aftermath of inquest into Mark Duggan’s shooting, the police, Home Office and Home Secretary have all spoken about the need for a fairer and less divisive stop and search policy.
- This article is by Mike Bonnet and Lucy Smith from OPM, an independent research organisation looking at the way services are delivered to the public
- A version of this article appeared on the Huffington Post
A further Home Office announcement on the future of stop and search is widely expected in the coming weeks. This is to be welcomed. Having recently completed research on young Londoners’ experiences and perceptions of stop and search for the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee, it is clear that the way stop and search is working on the ground, and how it is perceived by communities, could be further improved.
In July last year a report published by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC ) found that stop and search was largely ineffective: only 9% of the 1m stop and searches since 2006 actually led to an arrest; discriminatory: young black and minority ethnic males were seven times more likely to be stopped than white; misunderstood: 27% of stops adjudged to be on unreasonable grounds; and counter-productive: damaging the trust of many communities in the police.
Following the London riots in August 2011 the Metropolitan Police Service set targets to improve the way it uses stop and search powers and last September we conducted a series of focus groups with 36 young people aged 15-25 in five different areas of Londonto see whether they had noticed any changes in policing practice as a result.
Some young people felt that they had seen an improvement in the approach to stop and search; but our findings showed that many young people in London still have doubts as to whether stop and search is being used correctly, and that what they perceive as the incorrect use of stop and search continues to contribute to a deep-seated sense of injustice and resentment in many communities.
It is important to note that the young people we spoke almost unanimously supported the use of stop and search in principle. Furthermore there was some recognition of recent improvements in practice: a young man observed that: “Two years ago they’d stop and search you for no reason. I think now, they know who they’re targeting and not wasting people’s time.”
But concerns remain. One of the main points of contention was the grounds on which the stop and search was conducted, and the manner in which they were carried out. In particular young people felt that the police were often unnecessarily aggressive and confrontational when conducting searches.
One young man told us: “’I’m not saying all police officers are disrespectful, but around here you get the ones most of the time who are.” Another said he felt, “they try showing you they’ve got power over you.”
These concerns meant that many young people were sceptical of Met statistics which showed, among other things, a 90 percent reduction in stop and searches conducted under controversial Section 60 legislation. This raises an important issue: the perception of stop and search is arguably as important as the reality.
Since the Met police began its new approach to stop and search much work has been done to ensure that, in the police’s words, searches are carried out “professionally and fairly.” However, these improvements can be undermined if they are not communicated to, or believed by, the members of the public most likely to be stopped and searched.
As one young person put it: “I think we would give the police less of a hard time if we actually know that they’re trying not to give us a hard time.”
Ideas suggested by our research participants to communicate changes in police practice and thereby improve young people’s perceptions of stop and search included using television adverts, posters on bus stops and broadcasts on youth radio stations. The Met consulted extensively on stop and search before making the changes now enacted. The consultation link was tweeted over 640,000 times and received thousands of responses. So communications efforts have been made – but perhaps they haven’t always hit the mark, especially with young people.
Our research backed this up: we found that telling people you have done better, even backing it up with figures, isn’t a ‘magic bullet’ for improving their perceptions and relationships with the police. As we have written elsewhere, there is often a lag between improvements in outcomes and public perceptions of an improvement taking place. Certainly there is progress that can be made by using statistics to communicate and corroborate tangible improvements in police’s use of stop and search. But ultimately, in areas where community relations with the police have broken down, the role of performance information should only be auxiliary to a wider engagement effort, the cornerstone of which must be improvements in the day-to-day encounters between young people and the police.