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Theresa May’s right – we need to rethink stop and search

ECEmma Carr is Deputy Director of Big Brother Watch. Follow Emma on Twitter.

Over the last few decades a worrying trend has emerged in Parliament: knee-jerk reactions to a problem, followed by ill thought-out legislation which is open to abuse and overzealous use by public officials.

Big Brother Watch has long warned against the risk of police powers being used far beyond how Parliament intended, and in situations where there is no real cause for suspicion. Stop and search powers have been one of the starkest examples of how things can get out of control.

Under the last Government, stop and search spiralled out of control, with hundreds of thousands of innocent people stopped and searched without any good reason. The Home Secretary should be applauded for reining in the use of these powers to both respect people’s liberties and ensure the police focus their resources on where there is suspicion of wrongdoing.

The fact that just nine per cent of stop and searches lead to an arrest clearly demonstrates that the system is not working. It has caused immense harm to the relationship between black and ethnic minority communities and the police.

The official statistics show that if you are from a black or ethnic minority background, you are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than if you are white. As Theresa May said yesterday, we shouldn't rush to conclusions about what these statistics mean, but “everybody involved in policing has a duty to make sure that nobody is ever stopped on the basis of their skin colour of ethnicity.” 

It is, of course, not just ethnic minorities who have felt the full force of stop and search, there was public outrage after it came to light that between 2007-2009 450,000 people were stopped and searched under section 44 of the Terrorism Act; none were convicted or terrorism-related charges.

Despite this, there will still be people who argue that a reduction in stop and searches will have a detrimental effect on tackling serious crime and terrorism related offences. But this has been disproven in practice by a pilot scheme, undertaken by five police forces including by the Metropolitan police, which saw a more “intelligence led” approach to stop and search. It resulted in an increase in the rate of detections and arrests, alongside a reduction, of up to half, in the number of stop and search incidents.

If public confidence in the police is to be maintained, these sorts of powers must be used in a far more targeted way – and the pilot schemes already undertaken demonstrate that this is possible without jeopardising public safety. The Home Secretary’s statement yesterday was an important step towards ensuring the public, particularly people from ethnic minorities, can walk the streets without fearing they will be subject to further unjustified use of stop and search powers.


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