Points of View 20th February 2019

Open Government National Action Plan – What’s missing? A commitment to enhance the effectiveness of community scrutiny of stop and search

by Guest

This commitment idea has been produced by the Criminal Justice Alliance. This action was part of the Open Government Pioneers Project. Check out more commitment ideas here.

The recent increase in knife crime in urban areas in England and Wales has seen a greater use of stop and search. However, it remains a highly contentious police power. The government’s own research shows little evidence of its effectiveness but there is a well-established history of its disproportionate use against black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people, which current figures show is getting worse, and the consequential negative effect on police/community relations and on the police’s ability to gather intelligence. Twenty years on from the launch of the Macpherson Report, which identified this corrosive effect, it is timely to reconsider the effectiveness and legitimacy of stop and search.

In recent years the government has required police forces in England and Wales to provide more data on the use of stop and search in relation to not only disproportionality but also the reasons for and outcomes of searches. While this is a step in the right direction, the Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) calls on the government to commit to even greater transparency through increased availability of data and a much stronger emphasis on ensuring effective community scrutiny in order to improve operational practice and increase trust and confidence.

While police forces have for many years published the proportion of arrests that result from searches (17 per cent for 2017/18), there is currently no information on how many of those arrests result in charges or convictions. There are also no requirements to record data on the use of ‘stop and account’ and the use of strip searches or even more intrusive ‘intimate’ searches. Previously published statistics by the Metropolitan Police show that, like stop and search, these powers have historically been disproportionately applied to people from BAME backgrounds.

Increased transparency in this area must also be supported by empowering citizens to meaningfully participate in the scrutiny of the power and hold the police to account. The CJA’s recent publication, Stop & Scrutinise, examines this issue in detail by mapping the operation of Community Scrutiny Panels (CSPs) across the country. CSPs are groups of members of the public, representative of their communities, who scrutinise local information on the use of stop and search and have processes to challenge and hold to account the police.

Stop & Scrutinise shows that although some areas of the country are working hard to support good community scrutiny of stop and search, the overall picture is one of inconsistency and lack of clear guidance by the government. The CJA has developed four principles that should underpin a CSP’s work. A CSP should be:

  • Independent & empowered
  • Representative
  • Informed
  • Open & visible

Following a survey of police forces, we were concerned that some CSPs do not have a chair who is independent of the police and lack effective mechanisms for getting feedback from the police on action taken. We found some CSPs do not monitor the demographics of their members and more could be done to engage young people, BAME people and people with experience of being stopped and searched in the scrutiny process. We also identified difficulties CSPs face in accessing information, particularly body-worn video footage, through a transparent and accountable process. Police use of artificial intelligence also needs to be reviewed to ensure this does not contribute to increased disproportionality and has effective mechanisms to scrutinise its growing use.

We call on the government, through the Home Office, to urgently review the Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme and develop a clear framework based on the four principles and provide greater support to enhance the effectiveness of community scrutiny of stop and search and other police powers across the country.