What is effective scrutiny of stop and search?

Nina Champion, Director, Criminal Justice Alliance - 4 September 2020

As police officers will know, modern-day policing in the UK was founded on the Peelian principle of ‘policing by public consent.’ This principle, put simply, suggests that effective policing is dependent on the continued trust, confidence and cooperation of the public. Police officers are citizens in uniform, and their power comes from the consent of citizens, rather than the power of the state.

So, in 2020, almost two hundred years since the Metropolitan Police was established on this principle, how much trust and confidence do the British public have in the police?

The first report in the Strategic Review of Policing, published at the end of July by the Police Foundation, found that public confidence in policing remains high. However, the report also found that ‘public ratings for police understanding and acting on local concerns, being reliable, treating people fairly and of confidence in the local police have all declined in the last year’, following stable ratings since 2012. And not everyone in the UK experiences policing in the same way. Black and mixed ethnicity people are much less likely to trust the police and believe the police will treat them fairly, the report says. This echoes the Lammy Review, commissioned by David Cameron and published in 2017, which found low levels of trust in the criminal justice system from black, Asian and minority ethnic people.

One potential cause for lower confidence is the unfair and disproportionate use of stop and search. In 2017, the Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA), a coalition of 160 organisations working toward a fair and effective criminal justice system, spoke to young black men about their experiences of being stopped and searched. We heard that when a search is not carried out with decency and sensitivity, it can have a lasting effect on children and young people, making them feel ‘victimised’, ‘humiliated’, even ‘violated’. What’s more, it can have corrosive impact on their trust in the police and their willingness to cooperate as victims or witnesses. This creates a wall of silence, hindering the police’s ability to carry out investigations and reduce crime.

Community scrutiny  

One way to ensure stop and search is fair and proportionate is to allow the community to scrutinise its use. Last year, the CJA investigated the use of Community Scrutiny Panels (CSPs) across England and Wales. Although there were examples of good practice, we found a significant lack of consistency and effectiveness across police force areas. This echoes the concerns of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), who said in 2017 that only a minority of forces had very effective and independent groups.’ We found that:

  • CSPs need to be able to operate independently and must be seen to be doing so. However, almost a third of respondent CSPs were not chaired by a member of the public, but instead by representatives from the police or the office of the Police and Crime Commissioner. 
  • CSP membership needs to represent communities most affected by stop and search. However, a third of respondent CSPs did not monitor the demographics of their members and most CSPs only recruited new members ‘as and when needed’ rather than ensuring membership is periodically renewed. 
  • CSP members need access to sufficient initial and ongoing training to carry out their duties effectively. Almost a quarter of respondent CSPs offered no training. Where training was offered, there was a lack of consistency in its content and frequency across forces. 
  • The data and information available to CSPs, and the process by which it is selected, is variable and in some circumstances can limit the ability of CSPs to scrutinise and challenge. There are particular concerns about access to and the process for viewing body worn video footage. For example, CSPs in London have not been able to access footage since the start of 2020, despite a significant rise in the use of stop and search. 

Recently, following the CJA’s work in this area, the College of Policing updated its Authorised Professional Practice (APP) guidance on stop and search to encourage community engagement and scrutiny.  

Chief Constable Mike Cunningham, CEO of the College of Policing, said: “We want local communities to be able to ask questions, share their experience and build mutual understanding so that the police are best able to keep people safe.” 

The CJA welcomes this positive step forward from the College of Policing, which will help build transparency, accountability, and community trust and confidence in the police. However, to reduce the potential for the postcode lottery identified in our report, we would like to see the Home Office take further steps to ensure effective scrutiny right across England and Wales.  

In particular the Home Office should:

  • Make effective community scrutiny mandatory for police force areas across England and Wales.
  • Establish a national association for CSPs, similar to the Independent Custody Visiting Association, to help identify national trends, provide training and support, share good practice, recognise the contributions volunteers make and improve the effectiveness of scrutiny through the provision of monitoring frameworks and codes of practice.
  • Ensure Police and Crime Commissioners are given ring-fenced funding to adapt CSPs to meet the standards set out in the guidance.
  • Ensure every community scrutiny group can access body worn video footage.

Violence reduction 

Stop and search is a blunt tool in efforts to reduce violence. Research from the Home Office in 2016 found ‘no discernible crime-reducing effects from a large surge in stop and search activity.’ A much more effective solution lies in investing in a public health approach, which focuses on working with local communities and agencies to resolve the underlying causes of violence, including school exclusions, trauma, unemployment, poverty and exploitation. Violence Reduction Units (VRUs) across England and Wales are beginning to take this positive multi-agency approach. However, the Youth Violence Commission recently warned COVID-19 could lead to VRUs having their funding cut, which would be a significant step back in tackling violent crime and improving life chances.

The new guidance from the College of Policing is a very welcome move forward. However, it will not deliver the effective community scrutiny needed unless there is concerted action from the Home Office to ensure it is implemented across all police forces. This should be coupled with sufficient funding for VRUs to tackle the root causes of violence.

What you can do to help  

We recommend you read our report, Stop and Scrutinise, as well as the new APP guidance by the College of Policing. Find out what community scrutiny of stop and search looks like in your area and assess if it meets the standards set out. Are panels independent and representative? Do they have a published terms of reference? Can the public easily find their details? Do they have access to data and body worn video? Are panel members sufficiently trained? Are they affecting change to improve police practice? And is there a Violence Reduction Unit in your area with links to local communities?

We are keen to understand how the APP is influencing practice on the ground, so please do get in touch to let us know. You can contact me at nina.champion@criminaljusticealliance.org.uk.

This article appeared first in Policing Insights.