Police watchdog report says many forces do not understand how to use powers effectively nor their potential impact
Home Office figures show that black people are still seven times more likely to be searched on the street than white people. Photograph: Stuart emmerson/Alamy
The misuse of “intrusive and contentious” stop and search powers is threatening to undermine the legitimacy of the police, an official watchdog has warned.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) says that most (30) of the 43 forces in England and Wales do not understand how to use stop and search powers effectively nor the impact their use has on the communities being policed.
The official report also says that the priority given by senior police officers to improving the use of stop and search powers has slipped down the agenda since the publication in 1999 of the official inquiry report into the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Home Office figures show that black people are still seven times more likely to be searched on the street than white people.
The HMIC report, published on Tuesday, was commissioned by the home secretary, Theresa May, in response to renewed concern about the way the police use stop and search powers in the wake of the 2011 August riots.
The home secretary anticipated one of the report’s key findings last week when she launched a six-week consultation over the future use of the powers, saying the fact that only 9% of the 1.2m stop-and-searches that take place every year led to an arrest had caused her to question whether it was being used appropriately.
The HMIC inquiry, which included a public survey of 19,000 people, found that too many forces are not collecting sufficient information to assess whether the use of the powers has been effective.
It says that 27% of the 8,783 stop-and-search records examined by HMIC did not include sufficient grounds to justify the lawful use of the powers.
“The reasons for this include poor understanding among officers about what constitutes ‘reasonable grounds’ needed to justify a search, poor supervision, and an absence of direction and oversight by senior officers,” says the report.
The report adds that fewer than half the forces complied with a requirement for stop and search activities to be open to public scrutiny.
It describes the street stop and search powers under the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace) as “some of the most intrusive and contentious powers granted to the police” and warns that although some might think it will help to “control the streets” in the short term, its heavy-handed use may lead to major disorder in the long term.
Stephen Otter of HMIC said urgent action was needed to tackle the lack of understanding of the powers to prevent and detect crime. He said the investigation found that the exercise, recording, monitoring, supervision and leadership oversight of the use of stop and search powers all too often fell short of the Pace codes of practice, which set the standards to ensure the powers were not used unlawfully and incorrectly.
Tom Winsor, the chief inspector of constabulary, said: “The police service in the UK is almost unique in investing its lowest ranking officers with its greatest and most intrusive powers. These include those of stop and search.
“The lawful and proper use of the powers is essential to the maintenance of public confidence and community acceptance of the police, without which the British model of policing by consent cannot function.
“It is therefore crucial that police officers can show, with the greatest transparency, that they use these powers with the utmost lawfulness and integrity at all times,” said Winsor.
A Home Office spokesperson said the home secretary had made clear that the government supports the ability of police officers to stop and search suspects within the law.
“But if stop and search is being used too much or with the wrong people, it is not just a waste of police time, it also serves to undermine public confidence in the police,” he said.
He added that specific proposals in response to the report and the public consultation would be published by the end of the year.
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
The Guardian, Tuesday 9 July 2013
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