This piece is part of a series on violent crime in the UK and appears in our violence prevention newsfeed.
In March, more murders were committed on the streets of London than in any other month for over a decade. More than 50 people have been killed since the start of the year. Now, British policing is being scrutinised. Under pressure, policymakers and police officials are calling for the increased use of stop-and-search, a controversial police street interrogation practice that allows officers to apprehend and question people in public, without needing to arrest them.
The power, use of which hit an all-time low last year, is controversial. In 2014, Britain’s Home Office issued guidance stating that stop-and-search disproportionately targeted ethnic minorities and should be used with caution. Yet some fear that concerns over racial profiling have let violent gangs flourish while the police’s hands are tied. “This power may have been used too freely in the past,” Sara Thornton, head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, wrote in the Telegraph newspaper, “but the pendulum has now swung too far in the opposite direction.”
The policy incites emotional responses from both sides, and London’s police chief Cressida Dick and Mayor Sadiq Khan both back more frequent use of it. But key questions remain over the evidence. Has a decrease in stop-and-search contributed to a spike in London’s murder rate? And could using it more quell the violence?
Examining the evidence
Stop-and-searches mostly fall into two categories. In the first, police can stop anyone they “reasonably” suspect of committing or intending to commit a crime. In the second, senior officers can use special powers, known as Section 60, suspending the need for “reasonable suspicion” in a designated area if they believe that violence has taken place or is about to.
Last year, the College of Policing, a professional body for the police service, published the most comprehensive review of stop-and-search to date in the UK. Looking across London from 2004 to 2014, it tracked the impact of stop-and-searches on six kinds of crime — drugs offences, violent crime (excluding domestic abuse), burglary, robbery and theft, vehicle crime and criminal damage — and aggregated these to get an overview.
The results were clear: stop-and-search had a limited impact on overall crime.
The paper found that if total searches were 10% higher in a given week or month in an average London borough, total crime in that borough would have been just 0.1% lower the following week and 0.3% lower in the following month.
“The accusatory and public nature of stop-and-search can be particularly humiliating”
Impact varies slightly among categories of crime: stop-and-search had the most significant impact on drugs offences, though this remained small. Crucially, in the context of current debates on knife crime, stop-and-search rates for most types of searches had no statistically significant effect on violent crime, either in the week or month after the search.
“We weren’t surprised at the overall findings,” said Ben Bradford, Professor of Global Policing at University College London and co-author of the report, “but we were surprised at just how consistent they were.” No UK-based study has found stop-and-search to have any significant effect on crime, he added.
Stop-and-search has shown some evidence of cutting crime in the US: a study from 1975, conducted in San Diego, showed that stopping all street interrogations contributed to a rise in crime. In New York City, stop-and-frisk policies have had a more significant impact on crime levels than in Britain, but, again, that impact remains small. And when it comes to violent crime, success in one context rarely translates to success in another.
“The question is whether you think people are deterrable with this method,” Bradford added. Many young men carry knives out of fear: a knife becomes a tool of self-defence for young people who feel at risk. In the choice between being arrested for carrying a knife, or leaving the knife at home and potentially getting maimed or killed, many will always choose the latter, Bradford argued.
“Police are under huge pressures to be seen to do something,” he said. Stop-and-search is a particularly visible police tactic. But the pressure to allay the public’s fears with hardline methods comes at a cost.
Bearing the burden
“Nothing seems to harm police-community relations quite like stop-and-search,” said Matteo Tiratelli, a researcher at Manchester University and co-author of the College of Policing review. Bradford agrees: “The accusatory and public nature of stop-and-search can be particularly humiliating,” he said.
The impact on black and minority ethnic communities is well-documented. Most recently, a report by the left-wing member of parliament David Lammy into black and minority ethnic experiences of the criminal justice system found that black men were eight times more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped-and-searched. According to police data, in 2017, 35% of black men aged 15-18 were stopped and searched in the previous year compared to 10% of their white counterparts.
“We can’t have this conversation without talking about institutionalised racism”
And while the UK population at large supports stop-and-search, some 74% of black and minority ethnic people feel their communities are unfairly targeted.
“We can’t have this conversation without talking about institutionalised racism,” said Craig Pinkney, Lecturer in Criminology at University College Birmingham. “That isn’t to say that every officer is racist, but it’s a societal problem that’s embedded in the subconscious of many officers.”
Some commentators, including the authors of an in-depth Guardian study, have even drawn causal links between the record use of stop-and-search in the late 2000s with the London riots of 2011, just as heavy-handed policing was linked to the Brixton riots of 1981 in South London. It was partly because of the unfair burden on ethnic minorities that the Home Office cracked down on the policy in 2014.
“Policing needs to have the community’s support,” said Bradford. Communities who do not trust their officers don’t report crimes, and the potential for prevention plummets.
But if stop-and-search has negligible impacts on crime, and significant harms for community-police relations, should it be scrapped?
Scrap or salvage?
Despite fierce criticism of stop-and-search from the academic community and political opponents, few call for it to be removed from the arsenal of police powers.
Bradford sees three reasons for its continued use: “First, it’s better for individuals who aren’t committing crimes that they’re stopped and searched rather than arrested, which is probably what would happen otherwise.” Second, he sees it as valuable for the police, allowing them to conduct investigations without the time or expense of taking someone to a police station. And finally, he suggests that searches can be useful when targeted on small areas that are known to be hotspots of violent crime, rather than indiscriminately across cities.
But, according to Tiratelli, part of the failing of stop-and-search seems to be that the public misunderstands its purpose. “Stop-and-search was never envisaged and is not legally justified as a general deterrent,” he argued. Stops are meant to be fact-finding missions that allow the detection of crimes or criminal intent — not tools to decrease the overall crime level by scaring people out of committing offences. “It’s meant to be an investigatory power for the police to use when they believe a crime is being committed,” he added.
“Stop-and-search was never envisaged and is not legally justified as a general deterrent”
The task, he argues, is to reorient stop-and-search as an investigatory power, used in limited instances, or in specific locations. One example is as a tool in focused deterrence: a tactic that targets known, prolific criminals who account for a disproportionate number of crimes committed.
The aim, says Tiratelli, should be “a system where police units aren’t afraid to try out new tactics, but where there’s enough data being fed back to respond quickly to what’s working and what isn’t.” The problem, he argues, is that data collection and rigorous evaluation are seen as an obstruction by officers on the street, and a tranche of senior management.
Calling for increases in the number of stop-and-searches won’t solve London’s violence epidemic; but limited use as part of a more comprehensive strategy might turn the tide on the city’s growing unrest.
(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons/Xvex7)