Police use of stop-and-search powers criticised by HMIC

Police stop and search incident
Image caption Only seven of the 43 police forces in England and Wales recorded whether a searched item was found

Police in England and Wales failed to record the "reasonable" reasons for stopping and searching people in a quarter of cases, a watchdog has found.

The Inspectorate of Constabulary, in its first review, examined 8,783 cases.

It found that in 27%, either no grounds had been recorded or the officer had entered a reason which would not justify a search, such as speeding.

It warned this could render the power ineffective and lead to a lack of public support for police.

The government has launched a public consultation on stop-and-search powers.

Under the code of practice in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, the reason must be recorded.

A police officer has to have reasonable grounds for stopping and searching someone, such as looking for drugs or a weapon.

Reasonable grounds also include the suspect's behaviour, or they can be stopped on the basis of contextual information - such as a high number of burglaries in an area. Police can also stop people if they match the description of someone wanted.

About one million stops take place each year - but only 9% lead to an arrest.

Home Secretary Theresa May ordered the HMIC review in December 2011, after renewed concern over police use of the powers in the wake of the riots that year.

HMIC said its findings did "not necessarily mean that all those searches were unlawful and carried out without the required grounds."

But it did suggest that the tactic was often used incorrectly.

'Intrusive power'

The HMIC found that the powers were often used "almost habitually", but that police chiefs did not regard monitoring the power as a priority.

It said monitoring of stop and search had "slipped down the agenda" since the publication of the report into the case of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, which highlighted stop and search as one way in which institutional racism manifested itself in the police.

It concluded that the reasons for 27% of the records not having sufficient grounds recorded on them was "the absence of training for officers about how to judge when they have reasonable grounds, and poor supervision and absence of oversight by senior officers".

HMIC's national team inspector Stephen Otter said the failures to record details showed a "real lack of attention" by police, adding that the law was "there to protect the public from abuse" of the powers.

He said: "It's a search for something. You can't just stop and search someone because they look a bit dodgy.

"There's too much evidence that not enough care is being given to the individual encounters - building reasonable grounds for that individual encounter in that individual situation.

"You are exercising the most intrusive power that you have. You can put your hands in their pockets, you can direct them to remove outer garments. You are doing something very intrusive, and it feels intrusive. Getting officers to care about that is very important."

Public scrutiny

Only the so-called Section 60 searches - to prevent serious disorder on the streets - do not require officers to have reasonable grounds.

The report found that only seven of the 43 forces in England and Wales recorded whether or not the item searched for was found.

It also found that less than half of the forces complied with the requirements of the code to make arrangements for stop and search records to be scrutinised by the public.

And half of the forces did nothing to understand the impact of the practice on communities.

A public opinion survey for the HMIC suggested 37% of suspects were not told the reason they had been stopped, 42% did not understand the reason given and 47% felt they had not been treated with respect.

Ken Hinds, who won compensation for being wrongly stopped, told BBC News the police should concentrate on weapons and violent crime.

"Sixty per cent of the police stop and search is for misuse of drugs - that's where they're going wrong. That's where you get the disproportionality happening, because that's where they target the black community under the misuse of drugs.

"Now I'm saying that it has to stop... there's serious consequences when they get it wrong. It creates barriers," he said.

Responding to the report, former Metropolitan Police detective chief inspector, Peter Kirkham, said: "Police officers, like the rest of us, are not psychic. They will sometimes have some background information that they know already, but frequently they'll just drive round a corner and somebody will emerge from an alleyway or something like that, and they'll make a judgement on 'have they got grounds to suspect at that particular moment?'"

But he added the report reflected how some forces were not understanding how to use stop and search effectively.

Earlier this month, Mrs May announced a six-week public consultation on stop and search, saying it could be a vital power in the fight against crime - or a waste of police time which undermined public confidence in the police.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the government would respond to the HMIC report and the replies to the public consultation with specific proposals by the end of the year.

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