Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Stop and Search

What a rare hullabaloo going on in the press at the moment.

It is such a touchy subject. Take a look at this old report from Devon & Cornwall. An increase of 40 stops over a year- to 146 out of a total 13500 (i.e. 0.01%). I agree with the chief, who sounds a bit bewildered when he asks what is all the fuss about when there were 40 extra searches across the entire two counties over the whole year. But look at the Race Equality Council- demanding to have an explanation for the increase from 0.007% to 0.01%, and demanding to know what the police are going to about it.

So Keith Jarrett has opened a rare old can of worms, asking that more youths should be stop searched. Predictably Ch Supt Dizeai has his oar in already, disagreeing, despite the fact Mr Jarrett is asking more youths be searched, not black or white youths, but the race element is instantly brought into it because he is president of the NBPA.

Now here's my take on it. Personally, I agree with Mr Jarrett. In my specific localised area the majority of robbery and street crime takes place with youth offenders and youth victims. I am not mentioning anything about their ethnicity because it isn't relevant. Often, these robberies are "knife-enabled" (to use the management speak) and occasionally gun-enabled (whether real, imitation, or whatever). And sometimes, people get hurt.

However, the only time my officers feel safe in conducting searches is after an event, i.e. when someone has called us to say there's been a robbery, or they've seen someone with a knife, as they then feel they have the grounds to search people matching that description. So most of the searches undertaken are effectively already too late- the robbery has already happened, someone has already been threatened with a knife. Occasionally we are lucky and get the right person.

Because with the level of scrutiny stop searches get, my officers generally don't feel 'safe' unless they have rock solid grounds to suspect someone of carrying something. A group of youths hanging around eyeing up passers by? Not enough, according to the guidelines we have to follow. Even if you recognise someone from having previously arrested them for carrying a knife, still not enough. I've seen the complaints upheld for things just like that. I have to supervise every one of their stop slips to ensure they do have reasonable grounds, because I'll get in the smelly stuff if I let slide.

Its one of those things where we could be certain a particular bunch of people are carrying something, but we know and they know unless we can point to something objective giving us that suspicion, we haven't got a legal leg to stand on.

Stop search could be one of the most effective preventative tools we have. But because of the requirements for us to have these reasonable grounds to suspect something, we are not able to be as effective as we otherwise could be.

I know the reason for this- accountability and justification. I'm not debating whether the legal side is right or wrong here, just pointing out we can't have it both ways.