House of Commons Library

Police stop and search powers

Published Thursday, September 26, 2019

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.

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This Library Briefing forms part of a series about police powers. The Library Briefing Introduction to police powers provides an overview of police powers and links to other relevant breifings.

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.

Controversy

Stop and search is a highly controversial police power because:

  • Academic evidence suggests that the use of stop and search has only a marginal impact on crime reduction.
  • Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals are subject to a disproportionate number of searches. Black people were nine and a half times more likely to be searched than white people in 2017/18. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said in 2017 that many police forces are “unable to explain why” black people are searched more often than white people. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) concluded in 2010 that the “evidence points to racial discrimination being a significant reason” for the disparity.  
  • There is evidence that the disproportionate use of stop and search powers against BAME individuals are damaging for police community relations. Some argue that any marginal benefits in crime reduction stop and search might have are likely to be outweighed by negative impacts on police community relations.
  • Inspections of police forces and police complaints investigations have repeatedly identified some poor practice and noncompliance with guidance within police forces. Case law has established that when stop and search is not conducted in line with legislation and guidance it can be rendered incompatible with human rights legislation.

Recent reforms to stop and search

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. 

2014 reforms: A drive to improve standards

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.

2019 changes: Encouraging forces to use stop and search more frequently

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. In August 2011, following the appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, the Government announced that these changes would be extended to all police forces in England and Wales.

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

Topics: Drugs crimes, Offensive weapons, Police

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