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.

3. Volume of use and outcomes from stop and search

This chapter describes police views on the frequency and volume of stop and search, and on the outcomes achieved from stop and search. It is worth re-iterating that this research did not seek to quantify the number of stop and searches, that being the remit of the quantitative strand of the 12-month review. The qualitative research, rather, explored views on the reasons for any patterns in the number of stop and searches, and whether or not the power had been used enough.

3.1 Frequency and patterns of use

Police generally found it difficult to quantify the number of stop and searches they carried out, and said that it varied depending on the circumstances they encountered or the nature of intelligence they were working with at any one time. However, broadly speaking, community policing teams had carried out stop and searches as often as daily, while other units (response units, CID) tended to carry them out less often.

Observed patterns of activity by time and place, again, varied. However, police generally reported that the volume of stop and searches was usually higher on Friday and Saturday nights, particularly in relation to drug searches, and at times of year when people were more likely to be socialising, such as Christmas and bank holidays. Incidents were also more common around large events, such as concerts, festivals and football matches.

There were no particular types of people who police felt were more or less likely to be stopped and searched, but there were some observed patterns in terms of age group. Again, broadly speaking, those searched for recreational use "party drugs" at weekends were more likely to be aged 18 to 30, whereas those who were searched for drug dealing were more likely to be "career criminals" and therefore older. Overall, however, police stressed that the technique was used on a range of people and based on intelligence and/or observed behaviour rather than on the characteristics of the individual.

"It is completely mixed in terms of demographics and age - here you can have local people, people from England, all races, religions… I don't think [there are] stereotypes here, it is just [carried out] on the basis of the information we have."

(Police officer)

Among the NSSU and other police participants, it was widely perceived that there had been a reduction in the number of overall stop and searches in Scotland over time, reflecting the trend noted in the quantitative 12-month review (McVie, 2019). The reduction in the number of stop and searches was attributed to changes in the way the technique was carried out, specifically the cessation of non-statutory (consensual) searches. It was noted that this change in approach had been observed in advance of the CoP, as a result of the various pieces of preparatory work including the review of stop and search by Police Scotland, the independent review by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMICS, 2015), and the Stop and Search Improvement Plan in 2015. This, again, mirrors findings from the quantitative review, which found that the decline in the number of seizures and searches since the introduction of the CoP reflected an ongoing, steady decline which can be traced back to 2015 (McVie, 2019). Police views were that the CoP had formalised a change that was already beginning to take place as a result of this preparatory work.

"A lot of work was done in preparation for the code coming in, so when it came in it cemented the improvements that we were already making…the development of the code of practice was equally as important as the code [itself]."

(NSSU representative)

In terms of the case study areas, police in the West felt that that they were carrying out fewer stop and searches than they had been before the CoP was introduced. In the other two case study areas, however, police felt that consensual searches had so rarely been used that the cessation of this approach had not had a significant impact on their volume of searches. In these areas, police said that before the CoP came into place they had always carried out stop and search based on having reasonable grounds for suspicion. They therefore felt that the CoP had formalised an approach that they were already using, rather than introducing significant changes.

"I don't think anything ultimately really changed in the way I do things, other than formally issuing receipts and logging searches on the system…It hasn't particularly affected the way we go about a stop and search on a day to day basis – the same reasonable grounds still exist and the same process has got to be followed."

(Police officer)

However, as noted above, the impact of the cessation of non-statutory searches had been more clearly felt in the West. In this area, police spoke about having previously used consensual searches and noted that the ending of this approach had resulted in fewer stop searches being carried out, attributing this to the additional onus placed on establishing reasonable grounds for suspicion.

"Five years ago it was multiple, daily searches…you could be doing two or three a day. [In the last] seven months I've probably done about ten… to justify a stop and search now is very, very, difficult."

(Police officer)

3.2 Perspectives on volume of use

In terms of police views on the extent to which stop and search was used, opinions varied between those who felt it was used as much as it should be, to those who felt it was under-used.

Among those who felt it was not used enough, there was a perception that the requirement for all searches to be statutory-based had created a degree of caution around using the power, particularly among less experienced officers who may not be confident in justifying reasonable grounds for suspicion. It was thought that this level of caution could cause some officers to hold back on using stop and search if they were not confident that they had reasonable grounds to do so. This caution could be compounded by a fear about future ramifications for the officers in question if their justification for the search might later be viewed as unfounded.

"It's not used enough… a lot of [officers], especially younger people in service, are maybe a bit more scared because of all the changes that have come in. They're scared they're going to get in trouble, they are scared they don't have enough grounds."

(Police officer)

"Officers now are thinking twice before stopping people…because of that extra scrutiny. And I do believe it's important that there is scrutiny, however I think …rightly or wrongly, it has put some officers off. There's probably a large amount of officers not doing as many stop searches."

(Police supervisor)

Aside from the legislative remit within which they could use the power, police noted further practical restrictions on the extent to which stop and search was used due to limited opportunities to engage with members of the public. Some police officers, particularly those in units covering a large geographic area, felt they did not always have enough time or capacity to stop and search as many people as they otherwise would. Similarly, those in response units who were dealing with a range of incidents, noted that they could carry out more stop and searches if they had more opportunities to "be out an about" and engage with individuals in the community on a regular basis.

"There are times when it could be used a lot more, but because of the area we're in, there is not enough time to do it... you're going from job to job to job, because there is only one unit."

(Police officer)

In terms of young people specifically, it was difficult to gauge their perceptions on the volume of use of stop and search, as each participant tended to discuss their own personal experience rather than making observations about the overall volume or trends in use. However, several young people felt that stop and search was over-used, and perceived it to be targeted towards people of their age group. Such assertions are difficult to support or discredit within the remit of this research, based as they are on participants' personal perspectives about use of the power and framed within their wider attitudes towards the police. However, they are worthy of further reflection, as they illustrate the nature of the perceptions held by these young people and the challenges this presents in terms of their ongoing relationship with the police.

Practitioners, for their part, also tended to feel that stop and search was used too much. Based on their experiences of working with young people who had been subject to stop and search, practitioners felt that the tool was being repeatedly used among the same groups of young people and in extreme cases was causing them to feel treated and labelled as criminals. One practitioner felt that young people were being searched repeatedly as they were "easy targets" for the police.

"I think they do it too much, and they have to be careful and very understanding when stopping young person, [because] you have to understand how you affect that young person."


3.3 Outcomes from stop and search

In terms of the proportion of positive outcomes (i.e. recovery of an item) to negative outcomes (i.e. no items found), a range of views were put forward by police, ranging from those who felt a positive outcome was achieved "most of the time" to those who said this only happened in the minority of cases. This range in perspectives reflected the overall sense that outcomes were dependent on a range of factors, including whether there was intelligence in advance of the stop and search, the quality of that intelligence, and the type of item that was being searched for. It was felt that searches where police had intelligence were more likely to lead to a positive outcome, in comparison with searches that are solely based on reacting to an individual's behaviour.

While for several participants it was difficult to quantify any changes in outcomes over time, it was felt that the proportion of positive outcomes had increased since the implementation of the CoP. As noted above, the volume of searches had reduced since the cessation of consensual searches, and there was a sense that the approach was now based on "quality not quantity". Specifically, it was felt that the CoP had placed an emphasis on having reasonable grounds for suspicion, and that officers therefore felt they needed to be confident they could justify those grounds before conducting a search. As a result of having reasonable grounds in place for every search, it was suggested that there was now a greater chance of achieving a positive outcome. This was compared with the period when consensual searches were being carried out, when there was such a high volume of searches that the proportion of positive outcomes was "diluted" by the sheer number of searches.

"Before [the Code of Practice] they were just impromptu searches on the off chance you might get something, possibly…which then meant your good results were diluted, massively diluted."

(Police supervisor)

3.4 Effectiveness of stop and search as a police power

As stated in the CoP, one of the primary aims of stop and search is to help prevent and detect crime; police gave mixed views on the effectiveness of stop and search in achieving this aim.

In terms of detecting and solving crime, one of the key benefits of stop and search was that it involved direct engagement with individuals and therefore created the opportunity to "strike while the iron is hot" and recover any prohibited items on their person. Where searches had resulted in the recovery of an item, this was noted to have had the direct impact of detecting and solving the relevant crime and increasing public safety by removing the prohibited item from the individual.

"For detecting [crime], I would say it's useful…[With] weapons, it's a big public safety thing, it gives us the power to go and do something; if a member of the public tells us this person has got a weapon, it means that we can go and deal with it, detect it and solve their problem and hopefully protect somebody from getting hurt."

(Police officer)

Police had also experienced indirect impacts of stop and searches, as a result of information becoming available through talking with individuals while they were being searched, which provided intelligence that could help solve crimes at a future date. This additional intelligence was even seen in cases where the search itself resulted in a negative outcome.

"I don't think there is any stop and search that isn't beneficial. [Even] though it is negative in terms of the search for drugs, you are probably going to end up getting some intelligence from that."

(Police supervisor)

Views on stop and search as a crime deterrent were mixed. On the one hand, some police suggested that use of the tactic may have deterred individuals from carrying prohibited items due to fear of being stopped and searched, though it was difficult for police to be certain of this. On the other hand, others felt that it was difficult for stop and search to act as a deterrent because of the nature of individuals involved, who were often likely to reoffend even if they had been caught with items in the past. It was also suggested that stop and search had become less of a deterrent since the introduction of the CoP, as members of the public were now more likely to be aware that consensual searches could no longer be used, and may therefore simply be more careful about how the behaved rather than actually ceasing criminal activity.

These views notwithstanding, the NSSU stressed that stop and search should not be viewed in isolation, but rather as one tactic that forms part of a wider strategy of violent crime reduction. When examining the longer term impact of tactics such as stop and search, they highlighted the importance of also looking at other elements that have an impact on offending behaviour, including education, health, and social care. This was a view echoed by practitioners, who noted the need for a holistic approach to addressing the needs of young people who have had contact with the police, in recognition of their vulnerable, chaotic lifestyles.

"I think a mistake we have made in the past is that we felt stop and search was an answer to all of society's ills and was going to keep people safe, when actually we have learnt to understand that it is one tactic that needs to be done appropriately, but there is a host of other things that actually work towards a positive outcome."

(NSSU representative)



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