Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Stop And Search

BBC News: police stop and search powers to be overhauled

I wonder about the unhelpfully negative government attitude to stop and search until I remember that politicians always want to win votes amongst marginalised groups – particularly those who ordinarily wouldn't vote, such as young black males. How convenient for the politicians that this group also attracts more stop and search than any other demographic.

Stop and search is notable because it has placed politicians on the same side as the media – a rare event indeed. The media find the police an easy target, and the politicos are always happy to stick the boot in if it helps their popularity. It's my opinion – I understand you might not share it.

The whole tenor of this discussion around stop and search, and Mrs May's statements, seems to rest on an underlying assumption that cops don't know their stop and search powers - that they carry out searches without grounds, negligently and targeted on black youths.

I don't want to get into a discussion about the likelihood of black male youths carrying drugs or weapons, except to say that in my personal experience many drug dealers and violent criminals are black. And some are white.

This BBC article fails to mention the benefits of stop and search, or its purpose – which is to lock up thieves, drug dealers and violent people carrying weapons. Also there is of a course a deterring effect when people see police carrying out stop and searches.

None of this is being mentioned, as if the benefits of stop and search are a dirty little secret. Unfortunately our society remains very non-utopian - guns, knives and drugs are plentiful on our streets - and so for the time being police need search powers.

As for a ban on stop and search – there might be imperfections in its use, but if officers can't stop and search how can they prevent criminals carrying guns, knives and drugs on our streets? And how can they catch thieves carrying stolen items, such as shoplifters, or burglars carrying cro-bars and bolt-croppers?

Please, let's get real. Search powers exist to prevent our criminals carrying their guns and knives around with impunity.

The article states that “...only about 10% of ...searches lead to an arrest.” This is incorrect - the publicly available figure is 17% (I will find the reference for this). More importantly, why should a low fraction be a bad thing? The greater the proportion of unsuccessful searches the better, because this shows that stop and search is succeeding as a deterrent.

The discussion seems to imply that there is no good reason why a lawful stop and search would not result in an arrest, but that view makes no sense to police officers. Cops are not omniscient, and stop and search is not a science. It is more of an art, based upon using experience to put together a mosaic of clues to justify a search - something an armchair critic will not understand.

Mrs May might say that misused stop and search is "enormous waste of police time”, but officers know that too. We have heavy workloads and constant pressure from supervisors to generate arrests and detections, therefore no constable is motivated to waste time searching a person unless he has good reason to suggest he will find a weapon, stolen credit card, crack cocaine etc.

In practical terms, if the Home Office were to bring in some kind of stop and search registration system for coppers, how could it possibly work? Will officers show a card before searching somebody? Let's imagine two officers arrive on the High Street and tackle a man seen with a knife in his back pocket. They grab his wrists and handcuff him because of the obvious threat to life. What if neither have passed the stop and search test – they would have to radio up: “Can we have a search-authorised officer please?” And this would happen constantly. Finding the item might be time criticial.

One last point – the government might seek to reduce stop and search, but that won't prevent the ongoing fact that every constable is under pressure to hit a personal monthly target for searches. Sir Bernard and Simon Byrne might deny the existence of personal targets, but they are lying.