Stop and Search code of practice: twelve month review - qualitative report

Findings of a qualitative study which examined evidence on how effectively the Code of Practice was operating since its introduction in May 2017.

1. Introduction and background

1.1 Introduction

The police power to stop and search people in public places was, until recently, relatively uncontroversial in Scotland. In stark contrast to the situation in England and Wales, and in relation to 'stop and frisk' powers in the United States, police in Scotland enjoyed relatively uncontested formal and informal powers to stop, question and seize goods in encounters legally and substantively different to those of arrest. This changed in 2014, when ground-breaking work by Kath Murray at the University of Edinburgh (Murray 2014) revealed the extent of police use of stop and search powers by Police Scotland and its legacy forces. Levels of stop and search in Scotland were in some cases remarkable: per capita rates in some areas exceeded those of London and New York, with young men particularly prone to being stopped (ibid.). Yet there was relatively little public debate about, or even awareness of, this mode of police activity; unlike the situation in England and Wales. For example, police data on stop and search was not made publicly available on any regular basis.

Since 2014, there has been an on-going programme of academic research and policy development around stop and search in Scotland, which has revolved most importantly around three issues: the sheer level the use of stop and search powers had reached; the use of non-statutory 'consent-based' searches; and a disproportionate focus on young people, particularly young men. A central component of this process was the establishment by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice of the Independent Advisory Group on Stop and Search (IAG) in 2015. The IAG recommended the abolition of non-statutory 'consent-based' searches, the regular publication of stop and search data by Police Scotland, and a statutory Code of Practice (CoP) governing use of the power. These changes were enacted in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2016, and the CoP came into operation in May 2017. It is thus within a much altered, and still fluid, political and regulatory climate that the project described below is located.

The CoP was subject to a six-month interim review, conducted by Professor Susan McVie and published in 2018. The review concluded that: police use of stop and search did not alter substantially after the publication of the CoP, largely because use had fallen substantially before that time; the proportion of positive outcomes had increased as use fell; that young people continued to be disproportionately more likely to be stopped; and that there was significant geographic variation in use of the power across the country. It is worth noting at the outset that within the UK none of these three developments is unique to Scotland – indeed, all apply equally well to the situation in England and Wales, although Northern Ireland remains an outlier (Topping and Bradford 2018).

1.2 Aims of the 12 Month Review

The six-month interim review made a series of recommendations about areas the 12-month review should explore further. The purpose of the 12-month review was to examine evidence on how effectively the CoP was operating, with a focus on four key areas:

  • identifying any potential gaps in the legislation around young people and alcohol;
  • identifying any other potential gaps in the legislation or lack of clarity in the CoP;
  • whether there has been any increase in the use of Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994;
  • searches of individuals with protected characteristics.

On commencement of the study, and in discussion with the IAG, it was agreed that there were so few examples of Section 60 searches in practice that this area was no longer a requirement for this strand of the research. The remaining three areas were therefore the focus of this review.

The 12-month review was carried out in three separate strands; a quantitative strand of the review was carried out by Professor Susan McVie, exploring the volume, trends, and patterns of stop and searches in Scotland; an internal review of stop and searches by Police Scotland; and this qualitative strand carried out by Ipsos MORI Scotland in partnership with Professor Ben Bradford. The aims of the qualitative research were three-fold:

a) to gather information on the experiences and views of police officers who have been involved in conducting, supervising or authorising searches during the first year of implementation of the CoP;

b) to gather information about the experiences, perceptions and views of young people who have experienced or witnessed stop and search taking place during the first year of implementation of the CoP; and

c) to gather information from other stakeholder groups, including practitioners who work with children and young people, to ascertain their views and perceptions about any changes that have occurred since the introduction of the CoP.

1.3 Methodology

The review was carried out using a qualitative approach, with five distinct groups of participants: police officers, police supervisors, representatives from the Police Scotland National Stop and Search Unit (NSSU), young people aged 16-19 who had witnessed or experienced a stop and search since the Code of Practice was introduced, and practitioners working with young people or other vulnerable groups that were more likely than average to have experienced a search.

To allow for a focussed, in-depth exploration of experiences and perceptions of stop and search, a targeted case study approach was taken. Participants were selected from three areas across Scotland, specifically chosen due to the high rate of stop and search in the area, based on data available in the National Stop and Search Database (as at June 2018). A high prevalence of stop and search allowed a greater chance of identifying and recruiting young people who had experienced stop and search, and correspondingly police officers who had recently used the power. Data used to identify the case study areas is summarised below, based on the number recorded seizures and searches among those aged 18 and under.

Table 1.1 – Number of recorded searches and seizures of those aged 18 by command area (March 2017 – April 2018)

Area Number of cases (top 5 highest shown for each Command Area)
North Command Area
Inverurie and District 178
George St/Harbour (Aberdeen) 109
Peterhead (North and South combined) 100
Inverness Central 81
Fraserburgh and District 76
East Command Area
Falkirk (North and South combined) 77
Edinburgh City Centre 72
Almond (Edinburgh) 67
Bathgate 54
Galashiels and District 53
West Command Area
Southside Central (Glasgow) 195
Anderston/City/Yorkhill (Glasgow) 148
Clarkston, Netherlee and Williamwood (East Renfrewshire) 115
Giffnock and Thornliebank (East Renfrewshire) 111
Pollokshields (Glasgow) 89

In addition to the prevalence of searches, other practical factors were considered in the choosing of case study areas, including: achieving a mix of large and small urban areas; likelihood of a high footfall of young people that could be recruited to take part in an interview over the course of a day; and their proximity to Police Scotland stations where fieldwork with police would be carried out. Taking this range of considerations on board, and to allow for a spread across the three Police Scotland Command Areas, the chosen case study areas were:

  • North: Peterhead and Fraserburgh
  • East: Falkirk
  • West: Southside Central Glasgow (the Govanhill area).

1.3.1 Sampling

While qualitative research does not aim to provide findings that are in any way representative, some steps were taken to ensure a range of different perspectives were represented. Beyond the use of a case study approach to account for regional variation, the recruitment aimed to achieve a mix of:

  • police officers from different units, including both community based officers and those from response units, and both those working in uniform and in plain clothes
  • both female and male young people who had witnessed or experienced a stop and search, including those from different ethnic backgrounds
  • practitioners working with a range of different potentially vulnerable groups, including young people, homeless individuals and those with substance use problems.

1.3.2 Recruitment

A range of techniques was used in recruiting participants for the research, tailored to the different audiences.

  • Police Scotland representatives were recruited with the assistance of the NSSU and via lead contacts within each of the three case study areas. Police officers and supervisors were asked to attend the relevant police station on a specific day, allowing the research team to conduct focus groups and interviews over the course of that day. Although research was carried out within police stations located in the case study areas, officers and supervisors that participated in each area included representatives from a range of divisions, to allow for representation from a wider geographical area.
  • Young people were recruited through a 'hall-testing' on-street approach. The research team based themselves in a central venue in each study area, with recruiters stationed in the immediate vicinity. Recruiters approached young people and invited them to participate, using a specially designed questionnaire which screened for those who had experienced, or had witnessed, stop and search within the last 12 months. Where a participant had experienced multiple incidences of stop and search, they were asked to describe the most recent. Each young person that participated in an interview was offered a £20 voucher as a 'thank you' for their time.
  • Practitioners were recruited primarily through direct email and telephone contact, from a compiled list of professionals working with young people and other potentially vulnerable groups such as homeless adults, adults with substance use issues, and BME individuals in the three areas, identified through desk-based research. A supplementary snowball approach was also used, capitalising on participants' networks and specialist knowledge. While efforts were made to ensure interviewees were based as close as possible to the selected case study areas, in order to speak to as many relevant stakeholders as possible and to capture a variety of different perspectives, we allowed for a degree of flexibility in the locations of practitioner interviews, including some practitioners based in Edinburgh to inform the Falkirk case study, and some working more broadly across Aberdeenshire to inform the Peterhead/Fraserburgh case study.

1.3.3 Fieldwork

Fieldwork was conducted in September and early October 2018. Two days were spent in each of the case study areas, with additional fieldwork carried out by telephone with participants who were unable to attend on fieldwork days. In total, the fieldwork comprised:

  • 3 mini groups and 10 in-depth interviews with police
  • 3 mini groups and 2 in-depth interviews with police supervisors
  • 54 semi-structured interviews with young people, across the three case study areas
  • 9 in-depth interviews with practitioners working with young people and other potentially vulnerable groups, across the three areas
  • and 3 in-depth interviews with representatives from the NSSU.

All the interviews with young people were conducted face-to-face, and all interviews with practitioners and NSSU staff were conducted by telephone at a time of their convenience, minimising any burden on participants; interviews with police officers and supervisors were conducted in both modes, for the convenience of the participant and therefore to maximise participation rates. The Discussion Guides used in interviews are listed in the Appendix.

Young people who participated were given an information sheet about the research and asked to sign a consent form prior to their interview, as well as contact details of organisations offering support and advice on completion of the interview.

1.3.4 Analysis

All interviews and focus groups were audio-recorded with the consent of participants, and detailed notes were made by the researchers. All police interviews were transcribed for analysis purposes.

Interview and focus group notes, transcriptions and recordings were then systematically analysed to identify key themes emerging in relation to each question in the discussion guide, along with the key points relating to the overall aims of the review.

1.4 Reporting conventions and structure

1.4.1 Reporting conventions

As noted above, this review was carried out using a qualitative approach. Qualitative samples are generally small, and are designed to ensure a range of different views and experiences are captured. It is not appropriate given the number of interviews conducted to draw conclusions from qualitative data about the prevalence of particular views or experiences. As such, quantifying language, such as 'all', 'most' or 'a few' is avoided as far as possible when discussing qualitative findings, though where an opinion has been made by just one participant, this is made clear.

In order to protect anonymity, participants are identified using anonymous titles only, and quotes from police are not attributed to specific case study areas (given the small numbers of participants in each area, a job title in combination with the location could easily be identifying).

In this report, reference to 'police' and 'the NSSU' means the representatives that participated in the review, rather than the views of Police Scotland or the NSSU as a whole. Similarly, references to 'young people' relates to those who participated in the research, and does not claim to represent the wider views of young people in the case study areas or beyond.

1.4.2 Report structure

The remainder of this report is structured as follows:

  • Chapter 2 describes the current stop and search procedure, noting any changes in the process since the CoP, details of the current oversight of the process, and training provided to officers
  • Chapter 3 outlines perceptions on level of use and impact of stop and search, specifically the volume of use, how that has changed over time, and the perceived effectiveness of the power
  • Chapter 4 considers the research question relating to searches of individuals with protected characteristics
  • Chapter 5 considers views on searches of young people for alcohol drawing on the experiences of both police and young people
  • Chapter 6 includes views on any other perceived gaps in the legislation or lack of clarity in the CoP, including around interaction with vulnerable individuals.
  • Chapter 7 discusses the conclusions from the review, by revisiting the three key research questions.



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