The HMIC Stop And Search Report has recently been published and it has generated a good debate among Policing Matters LinkedIn Members. I was specifically asked by some members to pass comment about the topic, so here is my response:
Stop and search is an area of operational policing that has interested me since I led on a piece of research in the 1990’s in a metropolitan force – looking at the use of stop and search powers. At the time I interviewed over 200 officers and the results were quite alarming; there was a stark difference between those who used the power well and those who used it as power over people they stopped.
When officers appropriately used stop and search powers they were able to articulate clearly what they were looking for, who they were looking for and the intelligence and behaviors that backed their decision making processes. Nothing could be further from the truth from those who used it poorly or inappropriately – they were ignorant of their grounds, lacked intelligence to back their behaviors and were careless, to say the least, about the impact their poor professional actions had on individuals and communities. We needed to ask then – as we need to now – where was and are the supervision levels that allowed this level of operational incompetence to continually take place?
All officers had very similar training but it was in implementation and the lack of appropriate supervision where the system lacked rigor – poor behavior was not robustly challenged. I am not sure how much has changed since then and I am no longer involved in street level research, but the literature since the 1990’s is not overwhelmingly positive, nor is this recent HMIC report.
While I hear the call for the stop and search powers to be withdrawn, I have great sympathy for that position, I think that withdrawal would undermine those who use it well and who add value to the safety of communities. However what I do think is that there should be a debate around the ‘licensed’ use of stop and search. I do not believe that all officers are capable of using it – it is a particular skill that research shows is not universally used well.
I therefore would not give the power to all officers.
I appreciate there are real practicalities around this, and would welcome further debate on it. During my research I also interviewed the ‘victims’ of poor stop and search practices and the impact, particularly on the poor and the marginalised was devastating. In its current format, the negative behaviors around stop and search should not be allowed to continue.
I see a potential way forward that considers licensing the best officers and withdrawing it from those who have systematically demonstrated incompetence in its use and sadly, their fellow officers know who they are. Reward and learn from the best and focus learning in on those who do it well. And then replicate it. Training is a contact sport and those who believe something of this magnitude can be conveyed through ‘distance learning’ don’t understand policing.
Finally any senior officer who attaches a performance target anywhere near stop and search ought to be removed for failing to understand how they have just facilitated dysfunctional behavior on the streets.
I look forward to your thoughts.