Of all the powers conferred upon the police, Stop and Search can be one of the most contentious for the public.
This section of our website aims to:
- Explain the law, and what we mean by ‘stop and search’,
- Explain the community benefits of the lawful and appropriate use of Stop and Search, including some of the success stories behind the use of the power,
- Present in a transparent and factual way our Stop and Search statistics, including the proportion of Black and Ethnic Minority searches we conduct, and the proportion carried out on children (under 18s).
What do we mean by stop and search?
Note: To ensure national consistency, much of the below narrative is a direct lift from the ‘Approved Professional Practice’ publication on Stop and Search, circulated by the College of Policing.
The police have a range of statutory (legal) powers of stop and search available to them, depending on the circumstances. Most, but not all, of these powers require an officer to have reasonable grounds for suspicion that an unlawful item is being carried. The two main pieces of legislation that confer the power (and by far the most widely used by the police) are:
- Code A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (the power to search for stolen, prohibited or dangerous articles, or articles that may be used to commit crime) ,
- Section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to search for suspected illicit drugs
There are also powers under the Terrorism Act 2000, some of which require reasonable suspicion and some which do not, and under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which relate to powers to screen for weapons in cases of anticipated violence or disorder.
The one thing the powers all have in common is that they allow officers to detain a person who is not under arrest in order to search them or their vehicle for an unlawful item. Search after arrest is not a stop and search power, and there are a number of sections of legislation that allow the police to search people, vehicles and premises once somebody is arrested.
It is because this power allows officers to search someone without them being under arrest for an offence, that Stop and Search is particularly heavily scrutinised by the public, the media, politicians and inspecting bodies like Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. If not used in a fair, justifiable and transparent way, it can and has caused community tension and perceived illegitimacy.
It is worth mentioning here that the powers under section 163 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to stop motor vehicles, and under the Police Reform Act 2002 for Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) to search for and seize alcohol and tobacco from young people are not stop and search powers and are not currently incorporated into Code A. The legal differences may not always be obvious to members of the public experiencing such encounters, and they may still associate the encounter with having been stopped and searched. Encounters under these powers give rise to the same considerations of fairness and effectiveness as stop and search powers.
Other police-initiated encounters that are not dependent on a legal power, for example conversational encounters or stop and account, may also be seen by the public as falling under the same general label as ‘stop and search’. These other encounters are referenced in Code A due to the potential for disproportionate use, but are not subject to the same detailed obligations as stop and search.
When is stop and search used, and what are the community benefits?
The primary purpose of stop and search powers is to enable police officers to allay or confirm suspicions about individuals without exercising their power of arrest. The powers were conferred by Parliament because they are a crucial tool for the police in preventing crime and disorder, and terrorism.
Police officers meet, speak with and informally advise members of the public thousands of times every day. This is the nature of effective community policing and highlights our tradition of policing by public consent.
Where an officer suspects a person is, has been or is about to be involved in unlawful activity or where they are seeking information about a person’s whereabouts and intentions, they may first stop them and ask some questions so that the person has an opportunity to account for themselves. The person is free to leave at this stage and not obliged to answer the questions.
If the officer has reasonable grounds to suspect that a person or vehicle is carrying an unlawful item, or one of the ‘no suspicion’ powers applies (i.e. a stop and search power where the officer is not required to have reasonable grounds), they may decide to carry out a stop and search. This means that the person can be detained for the purpose of the search. This is not an arrest, but the person is not free to leave until the search is either completed or not proceeded with, and the officer is empowered to use reasonable force if necessary to effect the search. It is therefore a more intrusive process than a stop and account, although not as intrusive as an arrest.
Before you are searched, under Code A the officer must take all reasonable steps to ensure that you understand:
- that you must wait to be searched;
- what law they are using and your rights;
- their name and ID number;
- the station they work at;
- why they stopped you;
- what they are looking for; and
- your right to a receipt.
The officer can ask you to take off more than an outer coat, jacket or gloves, and anything you wear for religious reasons, such as a face scarf, veil or turban, but only if they take you somewhere out of public view. You can ask that the officer who searches you is the same sex as you.
Police interactions with the public generally, and more specifically stop and search encounters, have a more or less restrictive effect on individual rights. Each encounter must therefore be lawful as well as necessary and proportionate.
How do we ensure that the power is used legitimately?
We recognise that the use of stop and search powers can be controversial, particularly if our communities feel that the power is being used unfairly, to target certain groups of people disproportionately, or in a way that isn't transparent and open to scrutiny.
In 2017, the Force was graded as successful in complying with the requirements of the Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme (BUSS) by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.
The Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme was announced by the then Home Secretary Theresa May in her statement to Parliament on 30 April 2014. The principle aims of the scheme are to achieve greater transparency, community involvement in the use of stop and search powers and to support a more intelligence-led approach which leads to better outcomes, for example, an increase in the stop and search to positive outcome ratio.
We are very proud to have achieved compliance and have sought to build upon this in 2019.