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.

7. Conclusion

This concluding chapter revisits the three key areas for focus for the 12 month review, and reflects on the key findings with respect to each, as well as noting other areas for further consideration that emerged from the research.

7.1 Identifying potential gaps in the legislation around young people and alcohol

Though raised as one of the most contentious issues in the public consultation around stop and search, and highlighted in the six month review (McVie, 2018) as one of the key areas for further consideration, searching of young people for alcohol did not emerge as a particular issue in the current review. This was true both of police and young people who participated in the research.

In terms of the existing legislation governing their powers, police were largely aware that young people and alcohol did not fall within the remit of a stop and search procedure, and that they did not actually have a power to search young people that they suspected of having alcohol. While ostensibly this would suggest a gap in the current legislation, in reality police had not encountered difficulties when faced with these situations. Rather than feeling conflicted or unclear of their grounds when encountering young people with alcohol, they instead relied on their discretion and their broader policing skills to manage the situation. Invariably, this resulted in the young person surrendering the alcohol, therefore removing the need for an arrest to be made.

That said, there was a sense, albeit not a particular emphatic one, that the power to search for alcohol would help to close the potential "loophole" that young people could be arrested if they refuse to hand over alcohol. This could help to clarify police response to large scale spontaneous events, such as the incident on Troon Beach. Though discussed in hypothetical terms, this type of event would leave officers without the power to search for alcohol, potentially resulting in large scale arrests being made. The desire not to criminalise young people in these types of situation was seen as a potential argument for introducing a power to search for alcohol.

7.2 Identifying any other potential gaps in the legislation or lack of clarity in the Code of Practice (especially around dealing with vulnerable individuals)

The research explored whether or not the current legislation had left significant gaps in the police's powers to stop and search, and whether this had resulted in searches being carried out that were considered justifiable by officers, but not covered by legislative powers. Potential concern over these gaps were not, however, borne out in this research. Police were generally cognisant of the legislation, and the CoP, and were largely aware of the remit of the stop and search power. No examples were given of searches having been carried out outside of Section 65 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2016, or in breach of the CoP.

Where potential gaps were noted, these were in relation to powers to carry out a search of someone in private property for weapons when there was a need to protect life and to search for pyrotechnics; though actual experience of these scenarios was limited. While there was concern that, prior to the addition of paragraph 3.4 of the Code of Practice, police may have been restricted from searching an individual in private premises where someone was at risk of hurting themselves or someone else, officers were aware they now had the power to carry out a search for the purpose of protecting life (under the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 and felt that this would take precedence, allowing them to intervene in these situations as needed. With respect to pyrotechnics, experience of this was again limited, though it was noted that police were normally without a power to search individuals or groups for these items and that power to do so could prevent potential harm being caused.

A similar picture emerged in relation to dealing with vulnerable individuals – police felt satisfied with the guidance available on how to manage these situations. It is worth noting, however, that actual reference to the guidance within the CoP was rare, suggesting that police may benefit from a reminder of the information contained within the code on this subject.

7.3 Searches of individuals with protected characteristics

Consideration of individuals with protected characteristics primarily related to searches involving children and young people. Views of police were balanced with those of young people and practitioners, to identify any potential issues with the procedure, any changes in use of stop and search among this age group, and any gaps in the current legislation.

Police largely felt confident in their approach to searching children and young people, though stressed the importance of communicating in an appropriate way and managing the situation in order to minimise any potential conflict or distress for the young person. In terms of the guidance available about searches of children and young people, police had mixed views, with some feeling uncertain about their powers of searching this age group. As with guidance relating to vulnerable individuals, it may be beneficial to encourage officers to revisit the information contained in the CoP relating to searches of children and young people, and for feedback to be sought on any outstanding areas requiring further clarity.

Young people were generally negative about their experience of being stopped and searched, and put this down to a number of factors: the manner in which police spoke to them; the public nature of the search which caused them to feel embarrassed; and the justification for the search itself which they tended to say was unfair and unwarranted. Some went further, saying that young people were "picked on" and targeted by the police, a sentiment that was supported by practitioners. As noted in early sections of this report, these views were framed within, and potentially tainted by, negative overall opinions of the police; though this makes them no less valid in terms of illustrating the challenge faced in managing the relationship between police and young people.

7.4 Other issues raised by the review

Overall, the findings from the review suggest that stop and search was being carried out in line with the CoP and that the CoP had made a positive impact on the police's approach to the power. However, the review did raise a number of issues (outside of the three research questions outlined above) with regards to training needs that warrant further reflection:

  • The online aspect of training provided to police officers and supervisors on the CoP was criticised, both in terms of the nature of delivery (though an online learning tool) and its content, while very few mentioned the face-to-face training that they received. It was suggested any future training should be delivered face-to-face rather than through online tools, and should focus on practical application of the power, including the opportunity to share experience with other colleagues.
  • Repeated reference was made to the importance of the communication style used by police officers when conducting a stop and search, and the ability to read a situation and adapt their approach accordingly. Often these were seen as key skills that were developed and honed over years of experience and that, ultimately, all officers should have. It is worth exploring the extent to which officers, particularly the less experienced, would continue to benefit from specific guidance on how best to manage their communication skills in the context of a stop and search, particularly through the use of real-life, practical examples.
  • While officers and supervisors generally felt comfortable with the legislative basis for conducting a stop and search, and the guidance available for how to do so, feedback suggested that officers were not always familiar with all of the guidance contained with the CoP. This included guidance on conducting searches with children and young people and vulnerable adults, as noted above, but may also extend to other content within the CoP. Encouraging officers to revisit all the content within the CoP may help to identify whether or not any further clarity is required.



Back to top