SONY DSCThe launch last week of a new ‘Best Use of Stop and Search’ scheme represents the latest attempt to reform one of the most controversial of policing powers.

In a statement, Home Secretary Theresa May acknowledged widespread disquiet about the way stop and search is used, saying: “nobody wins when stop and search is misused. It can be an enormous waste of police time and damage the relationship between the public and police”. May insists that the new scheme will “increase transparency, give us a better understanding of how stop and search is actually being used and help local communities hold the police to account for their use of the powers”.

Fifteen years have passed since the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report examined stop and search in depth and recommended safeguards to try to ensure its proper and consistent use. Recommendation 61 proposed that a full written record should be made of each stop and search. Since then there have been further efforts to reform the power’s use: a requirement was introduced in April 2005, for example, that police officers note the self-defined ethnic origin of a person who is searched, along with their own perception of the individual’s ethnic background.

Nevertheless, statistics showing the level of disproportionality in the use of stop and search against black communities have remained consistently high: in 2013, the Guardian reported that stop and search rates for black and Asian people had doubled since the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, while the rate for white people had risen only slightly.

It is worth remembering that, in theory, stop and search is simply an investigative power, intended to help detect or prevent crime by targeting an individual suspected of a specific offence at a particular time. However, as the academics Ben Bowling and Coretta Philips highlighted in an article for the Modern Law Review in 2007 (pdf_icon, 256 kB), this is not the way it is often used in practice: instead,

“police officers frequently use stop and search powers for other purposes such as ‘gaining intelligence’ on people who are ‘known’ to the police, to break up and move on groups of people, and for the purposes of ‘social control’ more generally. Although there is no basis in law for the police to use the power to stop and search for these purposes, the practice is widespread”.

This is backed up by recent research by the University of Manchester, which concludes that the colour of their skin and  the friends who young people hang out with has a consistently more significant impact than recent offending on whether they are stopped and searched. It adds that ‘intelligence’ products “such as the databases of gang members and associates are likely to make the problem worse”.

One of the ways the new Best Use of Stop and Search’ Scheme (pdf_icon, 285 kB) plans on tackling this is through what is known as a ‘community trigger’: a requirement on police forces to explain publicly to local community scrutiny groups how stops are used if they receive complaints over a set ‘trigger’ level. However, the means of deciding this level has been left to the discretion of individual forces. It also relies on a system of complaints that remains deeply flawed and hides a dirty secret most people are probably unaware of: the vast majority of complaints against the police are still investigated by the police themselves, through Professional Standards Departments (PSDs), with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) acting simply as an appeals body.

The consequences, as Netpol member Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) pointed out in a submission to the Home Affairs Committee in 2012, are significant disincentives to pursuing a police complaint. The majority of complainants are unable to access formal legal representation for their case, but many also lack the confidence or skills (especially if English is not their first language) to make a complaint without support that, with the widespread closure of advice services, is rarely available.

Professional Standards Departments also have a track record of selectively ‘reinterpreting’ a complaint, frequently in a way that is inaccurate and biased in favour of the police, without consulting the complainant. They then proceed to investigate this ‘version’ of the complaint and respond to it, say NMP, “in a manner that is at best confusing and often lacks any real evidence that a thorough investigation having been carried out”. NMP also highlighted the apparent misuse of local resolution by PSDs who, “almost by default”, push complainants towards action that can only result in ‘words of advice’ to an officer rather than a full investigation.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that the level of complaints about stop and search is low, unless help is available: they do, for instance, make up a significant proportion of NMP’s casework, but only 1% of near 55,000 complaints recorded by the IPCC in 2011/12 were over the use of one of the most consistently divisive policing powers.

If a ‘community trigger’ is to make any impact on the way stop and search powers are used as racial profiling tools, then the government must also substantially reform the police complaints system – the two are intrinsically linked.


One website recently contacted all 43 police forces in England and Wales to find out how easy it is to submit a formal complaint. It reported a variety of “diversionary tactics to dodge the complaint”, including a denial of the existence of an e-mail address for a complaints department or refusing to hand it over when asked.

While lodging a complaint is simply the first step and we do not share the view that police complaints are ever “made easy” simply by doing so, the site helpfully lists the email addresses of each police forces’ Professional Standards Department, which we have reproduced below:

Avon and Somerset Constabulary:

Bedfordshire Police:

Cambridgeshire Constabulary:

Cheshire Constabulary:

City of London Police:

Cleveland Police:

Cumbria Constabulary:

Derbyshire Constabulary:

Devon & Cornwall Constabulary:

Dorset Police: complaints&

Durham Constabulary:

Dyfed Powys Police:

Essex Police:

Gloucestershire Constabulary:

Greater Manchester Police:

Gwent Police:

Hampshire Constabulary:

Hertfordshire Constabulary:

Humberside Police:

Kent Police:

Lancashire Constabulary:

Leicestershire Constabulary:

Lincolnshire Police:

Merseyside Police:

Metropolitan Police:

Norfolk Constabulary:

North Wales Police:

North Yorkshire Police:

Northamptonshire Police:

Northumbria Police:

Nottinghamshire Police:

South Wales Police:

South Yorkshire Police:

Staffordshire Police:

Suffolk Constabulary:

Surrey Police:

Sussex Police:

Thames Valley Police:

Warwickshire Police:

West Mercia Police:

West Midlands Police:

West Yorkshire Police:

Wiltshire Constabulary: