in Community Safety, Politics

The pointless exercise of stop and search

I’ve touched on police powers to stop and search a couple of times in the past. Once when I was subject to a stop – but not a search – around a year ago (although I posted about it some months later, prompted by section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act coming into force) and again last May when the number s44 searches undertaken featured on the BBC News website.

I’ve been sat on the last statistical release from the Home Office (opens a PDF) for a while, it was covered on the BBC News website nearly three weeks ago but was prompted to dig it out by a recent YouTube video of someone being stopped for filming in London. I’m not going into any of the claims made in the film or the webpage about her treatment (nor comment on the music choice) but like the majority of those stopped under s44 – she’s innocent.

Section 44 allows a police constable in uniform to carry out a stop and search without any suspicion. According to the Home Office figures during 2008/9 there were 256,026 stop and searches and 95% of these were by the Metropolitan or British Transport Police. Essentially London is by far the place you are most likely to be stopped.

The Home Office reports that 1,452 arrests were made after a s44 stop and search – this represents 0.6% of the total. What it remains totally silent on is how many of these arrests were for terrorism related offences. My guess would be that that vast majority, if not all, were for other offences (possession of drugs or a knife, for example) discovered during a search.

The figures for s43 are no better. Section 43 is different to s44 in that it requires suspicion. The act states in s43(1) “A constable may stop and search a person whom he reasonably suspects to be a terrorist to discover whether he has in his possession anything which may constitute evidence that he is a terrorist.”

As you might expect there were fewer stop and searches under s43, just 1,643 by the Metropolitan Police. But despite the requirement that reasonable suspicion is required just 1.5% of these resulted in an arrest. Again, it remains silent on how many, if any, of these were for terrorism related offences.

So these searches represent a huge intrusion into our civil liberties without it seems, without, it seems, producing much in the way of results. It also represents a huge amount of police time which I would contend could be much better used in other ways.

The Home Office’s release makes a lot of the fact that the number of searches are falling, by 37% between 2008/9 and the first quarter of 2009/10, but this still means there will be something like 160,000 people stopped and searched – and with no reason to think the success rate of these will be any better.

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