This Briefing Paper describes the police stop and search powers and outlines a recent history of their reform. It also discusses the available evidence on the effectiveness of stop and search.Jump to full report >>
The police have a variety of legislative powers to stop and search individuals. Most stop and search powers require officers to have “reasonable grounds” to suspect the individual has a prohibited item. However, in certain specific circumstances police officers may be able to search individuals without “reasonable grounds”.
A stop and search must be carried out on the basis of a specific power set out in legislation. Each time a police officer conducts a stop and search they should be able to demonstrate that they used the right power and complied with the relevant guidance.
Stop and search is a highly controversial police power because:
The use of stop and search has reduced dramatically in recent years. This fall is largely the result of reforms introduced by former Home Secretary Theresa May. However, more recently the Government has been supportive of an increase in use of stop and search as an important part of the response to serious violent crime.
The number of stop and searches conducted annually reached a recent peak of around 1.5 million in 2009/10. In the late 2000s and early 2010s there was concern that stop and search was being over-used and that this was having a detrimental impact on effective community policing.
HMICFRS published a highly critical report: Stop and Search Powers: Are the police using them effectively and fairly? in 2013. HMICFRS examined over 8,700 searches and found that 27% were conducted without sufficient grounds to justify them. HMICFRS were critical of police leaders for having a poor understanding of effective stop and search and for not doing enough to promote best practice in their forces.
Following the publication of the report Theresa May introduced a package of reforms designed to “contribute to a significant reduction in the overall use of stop-and-search.” These reforms required police forces to do more to monitor and scrutinise their use of the powers. The reforms also introduced new training standards and guidance (some of which was voluntary) designed to promote best practice.
In February 2019 the Government announced changes designed to make it easier for the police forces worst effected by violent crime to use their stop and search powers. These changes relaxed voluntary guidance introduced by Theresa May to promote the ‘best use of stop and search’ for these forces. Following the appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister the Government announced that these changes would be reviewed with a “view to rolling… [them] out across all forces".
Official statistics on the use of stop and search have not yet been published for 2018/19. However, some police forces, including the Metropolitan Police, have indicated they have substantially increased their use of stop and search in 2019.
Commons Briefing papers SN03878
Author: Jennifer Brown