#020/2013 – HMIC finds the police use of stop and search powers is too often ineffective in tackling crime and procedurally incorrect, thereby threatening the legitimacy of the police

Some of the most intrusive and contentious powers granted to the police are those of stop and search; but the majority of forces do not understand how to use these powers effectively and fairly to prevent and detect crime, finds a report published today.

After renewed concern about the way police use stop and search powers on the back of the 2011 riots, the Home Secretary commissioned HMIC to conduct an inspection of the use of stop and search powers in all 43 Home Office funded forces in England and Wales.

Over a million stop and search encounters have been recorded every year since 2006; but in 2011/12 only 9% led to arrests. The police use of stop and search powers has been cited as a key concern for police legitimacy and public trust in most of the major public inquiries into policing since the 1970s. While there is much public debate about the disproportionate use of the powers on black and minority ethnic people, there has to date been surprisingly little attention paid – by either the police service or the public – to how effective the use of stop and search powers is in preventing and detecting crime.

The inspection, which included a public survey of over 19,000 people found that:

  • the majority of forces (30) had not developed an understanding of how to use the powers of stop and search so that they are effective in preventing and detecting crime, with too many forces not collecting sufficient information to assess whether or not the use of the powers had been effective;
  • 27% of the 8,783 stop and search records examined by HMIC did not include sufficient grounds to justify the lawful use of the power. The reasons for this include: poor understanding amongst officers about what constitutes the ‘reasonable grounds’ needed to justify a search, poor supervision, and an absence of direction and oversight by senior officers;
  • there is high public support for the use of these powers, but this support diminishes when there is a perception that the police are ‘overusing’ them; and
  • half of forces did nothing to understand the impact that stop and search had on communities, and less than half complied with the requirements of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 code of practice to make arrangements for stop and search records to be scrutinised by the public.

When all findings are considered, HMIC concludes that the priority chief officers give to improving the use of stop and search powers has slipped since the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report in 1999.

HM Inspector of Constabulary, Stephen Otter, said:

“Our inspection found that the exercise, recording, monitoring, supervision and leadership oversight of the use of stop and search powers too often fall short of the requirements of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 code of practice, which sets the standards intended to protect the public from the incorrect and unlawful use of these intrusive powers. There was also insufficient understanding of how stop and search encounters work to prevent and detect crime to secure the effective use of the powers. Urgent action is required to put this right, and our recommendations set out the steps we think necessary to achieve the effective and fair use of these powers.

“We believe it is so important to rectify this quickly that HMIC will be revisiting forces within the next 18 months to assess progress against the recommendations.”

HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Tom Winsor, said:

“The police service in the UK is almost unique in investing its lowest ranking officers with its greatest and most intrusive powers. These include those of stop and search.

“The lawful and proper use of the powers is essential to the maintenance of public confidence and community acceptance of the police, without which the British model of policing by consent cannot function. It is therefore crucial that police officers can show, with the greatest transparency, that they use these powers with the utmost lawfulness and integrity at all times.”


Notes to editors

  1. The HMIC report published today, ‘Stop and Search Powers: Are the police using them effectively and fairly?’ can be found at www.hmic.gov.uk
  2. The inspection focused on: how effectively and fairly the police use the powers; whether or not officers know how to use stop and search in a way that works to cut crime; and how the powers can be used to build public trust – rather than erode it. Full terms of reference are available on the HMIC website www.hmic.gov.uk
  3. HMIC conducted fieldwork in all 43 police forces in England and Wales between October 2012 and April 2013 for the purpose of this inspection. This included 8,783 stop and search records, interviewed 500 senior staff with responsibility for stop and search, and surveyed more than 19,000 members of the public, as well as 391 people who had been stopped and searched themselves, to get their view of the experience.
  4. Stop and search has the potential to play an important role in the way the police prevent crime and catch criminals, whilst at the same time preventing unnecessary arrests. In order to illustrate this potential, the report identifies some examples of where the proactive use of stop and search powers led to serious crimes being prevented and detected:
    • East. Arrest of a predatory paedophile after police officers on routine patrol found a car with blacked-out windows parked in suspicious circumstances on an industrial estate. The driver tried to distract them from looking in the vehicle, which aroused further suspicion and the officers decided to search it, finding a 12-year-old girl who had been groomed for sex through social media. The offender was convicted and received a 17-year prison sentence.
    • North East. Whilst officers were dealing with a collision on a motorway, they smelled cannabis in one of the vehicles and conducted a search of the car and the occupants, finding a large quantity of cannabis in bags and suitcases. Further enquiries led to a further seizure of approximately £400,000 worth of cannabis, and more arrests were made. The people involved were part of an organised group suspected of committing crime nationally.
    • North. Routine patrol officers checked a car that was shown on police computer systems as associated with drug misuse. The officers’ suspicion was raised on speaking to the occupants and they conducted a search, which led to finding a large suitcase containing many unsealed bottles of liquid labelled as shampoo, which were subsequently found to contain over 30 kilos of high purity amphetamine, with an estimated street value in excess of £3 million.
  5. HMIC inspects all 43 police forces in England and Wales together with other bodies such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the British Transport Police and HMRC.
  6. For further information, HMIC’s press office can be contacted during office hours from 8:30am – 5:30pm Monday – Friday on 0203 513 0600.
  7. HMIC’s out-of-hours press office line for urgent media enquiries is 07836 217 729.