Doing the Math on Police Stop-and-Search

A version of the following also appeared in the Guardian.

Early this month, parliament in the UK agreed to drastically cut the police recording of stops and stop-searches. Political expediency was the name of the game, not efficiency or safety, and certainly not fairness or equality.

The government’s proposal, which will now become policy, is based on shaky math. Nick Herbert, Minister of Justice for Policing and Criminal Justice, claims that cutting all recording of stop and account will save 450,000 hours of police time per year and reducing the recording of stop and search will save another 300,000 officer hours a year. This conjures up visions of officers, freed of red tape, getting on with the real job of fighting crime.

Sound good? The trouble is the figures don't add up and the claims are simply bogus. Worse, they ignore the fact that such cuts will reduce police accountability and damage community relations at a time when social tensions are likely to be exacerbated by deep public spending cuts.

When we break down the figures, it is clear that government estimates hugely exaggerate the time taken to record police stops. On average police officers conduct roughly two recorded stop searches or stop and accounts per month.  Even if we accept the government’s grossly inflated estimates of how long recording takes, the proposed changes would save individual officers an average of  around half an hour a month—or 7 minutes a week.  Our own estimates suggest a figure of less than half this. While actual savings promise to be minimal, the costs for policing, in terms of lost public trust and confidence, may prove high. Added to which, increasing numbers of forces are introducing hand-held devices to record stops which cut paperwork while preserving accountability.

The proposed changes will remove five pieces of information from stop and search forms, including name and address of the person stopped; outcome of the stop (fixed penalty notices, arrest, etc); and any injury caused. Without this data, it will be much harder for the police and communities to determine how effectively stop and search is being used; whether it is targeting the right places and people; and to assess the validity of allegations of harassment and abuse.

Take the case of Ken Hinds, who won a judgment against the British Transport Police last year after being arrested for observing a youth getting arrested. It later emerged that despite his work with police to tackle gang violence and monitor stop and search practices, Hinds had been stopped himself over 100 times in the last twenty years. If name data is dropped from the forms it will be impossible to verify experiences like this.

The proposed reforms ignore critical lessons from the recent past.  The recording of stop and account has been required since 2005 and was introduced because of the clear community concerns about the abuse of stops that emerged from the Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence. These concerns have not gone away. Only last year, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission found that, nationally, black people were at least six times more likely and Asian people around twice as likely to be stopped and searched as white people.

For some, the most persuasive evidence that the government has got it wrong may come from the police themselves. Several police forces, including the London Metropolitan Police Service—the biggest user of stop and search nationwide—have decided to keep using the full stop search form with all the information and hold a wide public consultation on the recording of stop and account. This decision recognizes the importance of community scrutiny of stop and search and the operational value of stop data. It also highlights the politically motivated nature of the proposals.

With only around one-in-ten stop searches ending in arrest there is plenty of room for efficiency savings through better use of the power. This can be achieved by ending unfair and unproductive stops and searches of black and Asian people and by ensuring fewer, but more effective, interventions. Detailed stop data is crucial to this end because it provides the basis for rigorous oversight and scrutiny, which increases both fairness and effectiveness.

The proposals on stop and search are part of the Government’s "localism agenda," but while claiming to give local communities a greater say in how they are policed, ministers are curtailing the information that is required to achieve this. It is also telling that the proposals are being pushed through without the normal public consultation. It is also worth recalling that the PACE was introduced precisely to end the "postcode lottery" that saw wildly varied powers and recording standards used by police forces across the country. Minimum standards provide a basic guarantee and the equalities agenda should not be abandoned in the name of local control.

In the current climate of deep public spending cuts, nobody, least of all government ministers, can afford to be complacent about trust and confidence in the police. What is required is more, not less, public accountability. While it is encouraging that some police forces are planning to maintain their recording of stop and search, the government should follow their lead and reverse this ill-conceived reform, which threatens to do real damage to police-community relations.

The authors are members of the group StopWatch, which works to ensure fair and accountable stop and search. It was profiled in the Guardian last fall.

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