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Search (Editorial)

Tuesday, 09 July 2013 00:00

Heavy-handed stop and search

The report delivered by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) confirms the already widespread perception that police stop and search powers do more harm than good in the battle against crime.

For these powers to be effective, they would have had to be used selectively and on a palpably non-discriminatory basis in which the public had confidence.

None of these criteria has been met, with only 9 per cent of a million searches leading to an arrest, which would point to a conviction rate of possibly 6 per cent.

More pertinently, it would indicate a more than likely high level of resentment by the 94 per cent of those searched and either not charged or charged and acquitted.

Being stopped and searched in the street in full view of friends, neighbours and total strangers can be a humiliating experience.

It is clear from both hearsay and research figures that many police officers have a predisposition to believe that black people are overwhelmingly more likely to commit street crime and to stop suspects on that basis.

Despite some progress in tackling institutionalised racism within the police, at least since the Macpherson inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence murder, much remains to be done.

This is even more apparent in light of recent revelations about police shortcomings and malpractice over the investigation into the teenager's racist killing.

The HMIC reports "poor understanding among officers about what constitutes the 'reasonable grounds' needed to justify a search, poor supervision and an absence of direction and oversight by senior officers."

This is essentially a failure of management, revealing inadequate training and no systematic evaluation of stop and search results.

Such failure does not simply alienate black communities that bear the brunt of this heavy-handed blunt weapon of policing.

It also convinces other sections of society that the police are not using their resources as effectively as possible, lowering confidence in their capacity to carry out their duty of protecting the public.

This report should not be seen as a shot across the bows of the police alone.

Police officers will doubtless point to the staffing cuts enforced by government funding cuts that have affected both the front line of policing and the civilian staff whose back-up role is vital.

With fewer staff available, it is inevitable that there will be weaknesses in training officers to stop and search effectively. The same applies to recording all cases, monitoring and supervision.

This is unacceptable. Senior officers must demand adequate resources from government.

Neglecting to do so would place responsibility on the top brass for a situation that they have had a part in creating, as with the various scandals associated with the use of undercover police officers that have come to light recently.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper's demand that undercover operations should be independently authorised, renewed and scrutinised through on-the-spot checks should be incontrovertible.

However, labour movement activists, environmental and peace campaigners have always had well-founded hunches that the state was spying on them.

Politicians should not to be allowed to pretend that they knew nothing of these practices, just as senior police commanders try to avoid their responsibility to monitor how their spies were behaving.

There is still too much of the secret state that requires systematic illumination before claims of democratic accountability of the police can be taken seriously.

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