Section 60 stop and search is discriminatory, destructive and doesn't work

Posted by Bella Sankey on 22 April 2015

Last week the latest batch of police statistics were quietly released – among them, the stop and search figures for 2013/2014. As the cacophony of campaigning and political point-scoring reaches fever pitch, it’s perhaps unsurprising that they scarcely made a ripple in the press. But, once again, they make for a troubling read.

Discriminatory stop and search has long been a concern of Liberty. For years, overbroad powers and their inappropriate use have undermined the relationship between police and the communities they serve. They’re used ineffectively – sometimes counter-productively – and without enough scrutiny, understanding or accountability.

Sadly, the numbers speak for themselves. Even a cursory analysis shows a worrying disconnect between stop and search and arrest figures and – as Home Office and Ministry of Justice evidence has shown time and time again – that the powers have a discriminatory and disproportionate impact on Black and Asian people.

Arrest figures

The stop-to-arrest ratio is still shockingly bad for both Section 1 and Section 60 stops. S1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) allows police to stop and search for stolen or prohibited items, such as knives and fireworks, where they have “reasonable grounds” for suspecting they’ll find them. Of 895,975 S1 stops in 2013/2014, only 12 per cent resulted in arrests.

S60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, meanwhile, allows for stop and search without suspicion, for instance to prevent serious violence or recover offensive weapons. Only five per cent of S60 stops led to an arrest – that’s just 197 arrests overall. In other words, 19 in every 20 people were stopped unnecessarily. Just two per cent were found to be carrying an offensive weapon.

More harm than good

Black and Asian people remain significantly more likely to be stopped. Overall, 67 per cent of those stopped by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) under S60 were non-white. Black or Black British people accounted for 46 per cent of searches and Asian or Asian British people for 13 per cent.

The report says: “Although data from the MPS show a different picture to that shown across the rest of England and Wales, this must be considered in line with the ethnic breakdown of those who live in and visit areas covered by the MPS. London has a much larger proportion of the population that belong to ethnic minorities than other areas of England and Wales.”

True. But a quick glance at the 2011 Census results reveals that just 13 per cent of London’s population define as Black. Nearly 60 per cent of its residents are White – yet White people account for only a quarter of S60 stops and searches.

Taken in conjunction with such a low arrest rate, a picture emerges of a policy that has the capacity to cause significant intrusion into a person’s personal freedom, capable of doing far more harm than good to community confidence and co-operation.

Surprising lack of interest

In August last year, Home Secretary Theresa May launched the Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme, saying it would “increase transparency, give us a better understanding of how stop and search is actually being used and help local communities hold the police to account for their use of the powers” and adding that she hoped it would “go a long way to building public confidence and forging an important link between communities and the police.”

Yet in a report published last month following a 2014/2015 inspection, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) found forces in England and Wales had made “disappointingly slow progress” in improving their use of stop and search since 2013. Inspectors discovered a “surprising lack of interest” among police leaders about the way strip searches are carried out, in particular their use on children and vulnerable young people and – staggeringly – “no official record keeping” of traffic stops or strip searches.

HMI Stephen Otter said: “Too many police leaders and officers still don’t seem to understand the impact that the use of powers to stop and search people can have on the lives of many, especially young people, and those who are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. This is disappointing because getting it wrong can lead to resentment, anger and, in time, a loss of trust in the police.

While it’s heartening that S60 searches have fallen in recent years, it has little utility in modern policing and a disturbing propensity (and record) for misuse – and S1 already offers the necessary tools for police to act where they have reasonable suspicion. Here’s hoping the next government will see sense and finally repeal this unnecessary, unlawful and damaging power.