4. Searches of individuals with protected characteristics
In the six-month review, concern was expressed about the disproportionate use of stop and search among children and young people. These concerns had first been raised in 2014 after research suggested there was a higher rate of searching in Scotland compared to other countries and that children and young people were disproportionately subject to police searches (Murray 2014).
The CoP specifically covers searches of children and young people (in s7), and the training introduced by Police Scotland prior to the introduction of the CoP included elements aimed at improving methods of engagement with young people. The CoP also places restrictions on the extent to which any protected characteristics can be used as reasonable grounds for suspicion stating:
"The following cannot be used alone as the reason for stopping and searching any individual: a person's physical appearance with regard to the relevant protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010, section 149, i.e. age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation."
With this background in mind, one of the specific areas for consideration in the 12-month review was the use of stop and search among people from protected characteristic groups, particularly young people.
4.2 Searches of children and young people
4.2.1 Experience of the police
As with observed patterns of stop and searches generally, police had mixed experiences of searching children and young people, ranging from those who had done so very rarely to those who did so regularly. This range in volume and frequency somewhat reflected differences in police roles, with community police encountering young people more often than other units.
In the North and East, there was no discernible difference in the rate of searches of children and young people since the introduction of the CoP. However, in the West it was noted that the rate of these searches had decreased since the cessation of non-statutory searches, echoing the view on the overall rate of stop and searches in that area. Aside from frequency of searches, there was a sense that, since the introduction of the CoP, young people had become more aware of the stages involved in a statutory stop and search, and had become more likely to ask questions about the process and request receipts – although this did not necessarily tie in with the experiences of the young people included in the research who had little interest in receiving receipts.
Police largely felt confident in their approach to searching children and young people, though it was not without its challenges. One such challenge was linked to negative views that this age group often had about police, demonstrated through argumentative and confrontational reactions when approached and engaged with by an officer. As a result, officers stressed the importance of drawing on their communication and inter-personal skills to help make the interaction as calm as possible.
As well as the requirement to involve a parent or guardian where necessary, engagement with children and young people involved similar considerations as those of other vulnerable individuals, specifically the need to take extra care in ensuring that the individual understood what was happening, and altering the communication style accordingly. It was also noted that there was need to be aware of any potential stress or anxiety that an encounter with the police might have on a young person, placing further emphasis on the importance of careful communication and management of the situation.
"When you're dealing with a younger person… you've got a wider consideration of how a young person could be impacted by having a police person detaining them and searching them."
In terms of the guidelines provided on searching children and young people with the CoP, opinion was once again mixed. On the one hand, it was felt that the information on children and young people was clear and helpful, while on the other hand it was suggested that it did not go far enough in providing specific advice on how to engage with individuals of this age group. For those who felt there was a lack of clarity, this had contributed to a sense of uncertainty about how they should engage with young people, and in extreme cases had caused them to feel apprehensive about carrying out searches among this age group.
"I'm very confident with the legislation. Whether somebody is 15 or 50 it's the same power, [but] how you actually deal with young people is different…I don't know how clear that is in the Code of Practice."
"I think I would feel a bit apprehensive about like stopping and searching a young person… maybe just to do with uncertainty in the legislation."
4.2.2 Young people's perspectives
Of the young people who participated in the research, few had been found with an item in their possession. Perhaps reflecting this, almost all were negative about their experience of having been stopped and searched. When describing their experience, it was common for participants to say they felt the process had left them feeling "intimidated", "picked on" and that they were "treated like a criminal". These views were expressed in relation to the overall process, but specific aspects were highlighted as leaving a particularly negative impression; as noted earlier this included the way police spoke to young people, the location of the search, and the justification for the search having been carried out.
These negative views included a sense that young people were targeted because of their age. When asked why they had been stopped and searched, responses included speculation that it had been because they were "hanging around with nothing to do" in the centre of town, which young people felt unduly arose police suspicion.
It should be noted that this point of view was also acknowledged among police participants, who were aware that young people often attributed being stopped and searched to being targeted by the police (though police stressed that this was not the case). It was suggested that young people were more likely than other age groups to share stories about their encounters with police, which would mean that negative perceptions about the procedure, and about the police in general, would easily be spread to others.
"They'll talk about it to their pals and they'll share stories…. [which has] a very damaging negative effect, beyond that individual. I think that's when the police become something which [young people] feel automatically negative towards."
4.2.3 Practitioners' perspectives
Practitioners largely echoed the views of young people, though they saw both positive and negative impacts of stop and search. From a positive perspective, it was felt that stop and search could be an effective tool in encouraging and facilitating public safety, by removing weapons from young peoples' possession and potentially deterring them from using drugs. Use of stop and search was also seen as sending a positive message to young people, making them aware that they should not be in possession of illegal items and that if they did so they were likely to be caught.
However, these views were outweighed by more negative perceptions among practitioners. There was a general impression that stop and search was having an adverse impact on relationships between young people and the police. As noted above, practitioners felt that young people were being stopped and searched too regularly, leading to perceptions of targeting by the police. These were not seen to have abated since the introduction of the CoP, as they did not feel there was a discernible change in the frequency or manner in which the power was used. Reflecting on these concerns, practitioners stressed the importance of police being aware of the potentially stressful and traumatic impacts that a stop and search can have on a young person, and the need for police to manage the approach accordingly.
"[Young people] congregate in groups and hang about in parks and closes, wherever they can. Young people that are seen congregating… the stereotypical view [of the police] is "what's happening here? There's going to be trouble". And some of the [young people] know that if they get together, [they will be] pulled by the police whether they're up to anything or not."
"The police started targeting young people, and I did see that first hand. And it's quite traumatising for a young person who's never been in trouble with the police to get searched and sometimes ...it takes time to get over that."
4.3 Searches of other protected characteristic groups
Discussion around searches of individuals with protected characteristics largely focussed on children and young people. The only other protected characteristic that was discussed was ethnicity, though this too was limited.
In terms of ethnicity, the quantitative 12-month review notes that the vast majority of searches and seizures in Scotland involve people who self-define as belonging to a white ethnic group (McVie, 2019). This finding is echoed by the views of police participants, who noted that the profile of individuals they engaged with tended to be pre-dominantly white, including those they stopped and searched. Police therefore raised few concerns about using the power among non-white individuals. The only exception was the aforementioned caution around asking an individual to describe their ethnicity, due to the potentially sensitive nature of the question (see 2.2.6).
Reflecting views of police, there were few issues relating to ethnicity raised by young people or practitioners. Indeed, non-white participants mentioned, unprompted, that they did not feel their ethnicity had been a reason for having been stopped and searched.
4.4 Perceived gaps in legislation
No gaps were noted in relation to the legislation surrounding searches of protected characteristic groups; police felt comfortable that there was sufficient clarity in their powers to stop and search in this respect. Where amendments were suggested, these were in relation to powers outside of stop and search, specifically searches of young people and alcohol, which are explored in the following chapter.
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