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Is stop-and-search really ’intelligence-led’?

By Peter Keeling, Policy & Member Support Officer at the Criminal Justice Alliance

Police in England and Wales conducted 386,000 stop-and-searches in 2015/16, a drop of over 60 per cent from the all-time high of 1.2 million in 2010/11. Drug searches account for more than three in five of all searches. And nearly 40,000 searches for a firearm or offensive weapon were conducted.

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However some commentators – and also, critically, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner – have previously suggested that stop-and-search may have a deterrent effect on crime, particularly on the carrying of knives. Then-Home Secretary Theresa May refuted this argument powerfully in a speech to the National Black Policing Association late last year. It was notable that the Met responded then by conceding that there is ‘no definitive evidence to prove or disprove the suggested link.’

This lack of evidence was confirmed by a 2016 Home Office report analysing the effect of the dramatic increase in weapon searches by the Metropolitan Police in 2008. It concluded there was ‘no statistically significant crime-reducing effect from the large increase in weapons searches’.

The report summarises evidence around stop-and-search more generally in both the UK and the US – where it’s called stop-and-frisk. It finds it limited and inconclusive. One UK study found that while there was an immediate positive effect on recorded crime in hotspot areas where five or more stops occurred, it subsequently only took three days for crime rates to return to previous levels. Evidence from New York has shown that while stop-and-frisk may lead to a small reduction in the probability of a crime occurring in very small geographical areas, the effect lasted only four days and with a radius of 300 feet.

Only 16 per cent of stops in England and Wales in 2015/16 led to an arrest and data from 17 forces show that no further action was taken in over three quarters of stops, that’s almost 300,000 times. Furthermore black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people are three times as likely to be stopped as white people and black people are now over six times as likely to be stopped, a figure that’s actually risen in the last year.

This situation contributes starkly to the disengagement of too many BAME people from the criminal justice system. Coupled with the lack of evidence of a crime-reducing effect, they raise important questions about how effectively stop-and-search is being used. In these circumstances, can anyone say it’s truly ‘intelligence-led’?