Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Watchdog highlights concern over impact of stop and search

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Police chiefs must overhaul their use of stop and search to address its “traumatic” and disproportionate impact on ethnic minority groups, a watchdog has found.

A review by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has today made a string of recommendations aimed at stopping the unequal targeting of black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups.

In the year to March 2021, black people were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white, while Asian people were 2.4 times more likely.

The report included one case study of a black boy who was searched more than 60 times between the ages of 14 and 16, sometimes more than once in the same day.

The IOPC said force, in particular handcuffs, must not be used as standard during searches, while officers should not rely on the smell of cannabis alone when deciding whether to stop someone.

It highlighted one example where a 12-year-old boy with a plaster cast on one arm was handcuffed while out running an errand for his mother.

The child was restrained within 20 seconds of the officer leaving his patrol car.

The watchdog called on police bosses to “reduce their officers’ reliance on the smell of cannabis alone” when deciding whether to carry out a search.

It said it had seen examples where the smell of cannabis was given on the sole grounds for stop and search, which is not in accordance with authorized police practice.

The report called on the Home Office to review what are considered reasonable grounds for suspicion for cannabis possession, and whether any changes are needed to police powers.

Current guidelines say it is not good practice for an officer to rely on one factor alone when deciding whether to search someone, particularly if it is difficult to attribute to one person.

But in its report, the IOPC said: “In some of our investigations, the smell of cannabis has either formed the sole grounds given for a stop and search, or it has been the main reason for suspicion alongside either weak, non-specific concerns about behaviour, or vague intelligence relating to geographical location.

“These examples reinforce an often-held perception that the smell of cannabis is being used as an excuse to conduct a stop and search, especially when no cannabis is then found on the individual.”

It comes following the case of a Black schoolgirl who was strip-searched by police while on her period after being wrongly accused of cannabis possession.

The teenager, who was 15 years old at the time, was subjected to a search by Metropolitan Police officers at a school in London after they were called by teachers who were concerned the student had drugs in her possession because she allegedly smelt of cannabis.

Police in England and Wales carried out 695,009 stop and searches in the year to March 2021, 77 per cent of which resulted in no further action.

Although forces often cite the powers as useful for taking weapons off the streets, 478,576 of the searches were for drugs, up 36 per cent on the previous year.

The recommendations include:

– The National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing draw up new guidelines to stop people from ethnic minorities being searched or subject to use of force “because of decision-making based upon assumptions, stereotypes and racial bias”

– That the two bodies and the Home Office commission research into trauma caused by the incorrect use of stop and search

– The ethnicity and gender of people subject to traffic stops should be recorded to see if the powers are disproportionately used against certain groups

– Officers’ individual stop and search records should be regularly reviewed

– Police chiefs should make sure their officers know they are obliged to challenge inappropriate behavior by colleagues during stop and searches.

Sal Naseem, IOPC lead on discrimination, said: “We are concerned about the impact of stop and search on ethnic minority groups, in particular the negative effect it can have on public confidence in policing.

“It cannot be underestimated how traumatic a stop and search encounter can be on an individual. If carried out insensitively, a person can be left feeling humiliated and victimised.

“The experience can also be the first interaction for some young adults and if it is a negative one, this can have a lasting impact on that person and the trust they put in the police.

“It is time to break the cycle. The challenge for police forces is to build bridges with those in communities who feel marginalized so those same people feel confident in coming to police when needed.”

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