1. Governance
April 17, 2023

Is it time for the Metropolitan Police to discontinue stop and search?

The Casey report has identified significant issues in the Metropolitan police and advocates for a reset of the stop and search system.

By Liam Murphy

The 363-page Casey Report detailed significant issues within the Metropolitan Police and how the service is, in its current form and in Casey’s opinion, unable to protect the public it serves. It stated that the Met regularly dismiss warning signs that lead to cases like that of Wayne Couzens and David Carrick

stop and search
Stop and search procedures are one element of the Met Police that has been found to be problematic. (Photo by Sam Mellish / In Pictures via Getty Images Images)

The report states that the Metropolitan Police are “institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic”. Casey also reveals how this has led to a disintegration of trust between police and the public. 

The Metropolitan Police operate a system of ‘policing by consent’, in which the public trust them to protect and serve. According to the report, this system has eroded greatly, with under half of the people surveyed saying that they trust the police to do a good job locally (a number which, at some points around 2016, was as high as 70%). The percentage of people that trust the police in general dwindles to 15% in black and mixed ethnic groups.

Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley has admitted a need for “dramatic reform”, and it’s apparent that the Met needs to work hard and recognise its faults if it is to win back the public’s trust.

How has stop and search factored into the Met?

Stop and search has played a major role in the Metropolitan Police’s approach to all kinds of violence and disorder in London. Adapted from 19th-century sus laws used to arrest vagrants and those deemed to have been acting suspiciously, stop and search means that any civilian can be stopped and subjected to a search according to one of two acts. 

Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act allows for the searching of someone if an officer has “reasonable grounds” to suspect they will find stolen or prohibited articles. The second is under Section 60, which is often referred to as a “suspicionless stop”. This gives an officer the power to stop any pedestrian on the grounds that they believe that serious violence “may” take place in an area.

The “may” used is key, as in 2014 the wording was changed to if an officer believed that serious violence “will” take place, it was then changed back to “may” in 2022 by Priti Patel.

The language and details of these two acts are of particular focus for organisations like StopWatch, which act against the disproportionality that stop and search strategies perpetuate.

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“These [situations involving stop and search] are fluid situations, during which an individual has little choice but to take an officer at their word, and so the police are often able to use tenuous pretexts to initiate quite intrusive ‘reasonable suspicion’ searches,” Habib Kadiri, director of research and policy at StopWatch, explains. “The term ‘reasonable suspicion’ implies a certain degree of contextual knowledge, as if the Met work off of prior intelligence, but this is not reflected in the statistics.” 

In a country-wide report titled 'Disproportionate use of police powers', it was found that, in a batch of around 9,378 police searches carried out in 2019, only 9% of searches on average were carried out due to prior intelligence. With “self-generated” stop and searches making up the majority of the rest of them, Kadiri believes that this is where you can see “racially bias” motives begin to reveal themselves. 

It is widely reported that stop-and-search strategies disproportionately target ethnic minority communities. The Met’s data shows that in the past 12 months of stop and searches, black and Asian people are grossly overrepresented. For example, in Hackney, around 50% of stop and searches were carried out on black people, even though they make up only 20% of the borough’s population. 

Knife crime

Stop and search is a “vital tool” to curb knife crime in the capital, according to the Mayor of London’s Knife Crime Strategy. An ever-present issue in UK society, with London arguably being its hub, the Met’s own data shows over 13,000 knife crime offences in 2022/23, a 16% rise from 2021/22.

However, knives only make up a small amount of the items found in stop and searches. For instance, from March 2022 to March 2023, out of the 174,800 stop and searches performed, around 71% ended with no further action (NFA) being taken. And of those searches where items were found, just under 4,000 of them were found with a weapon of some kind. 

Kadiri points out that the phrase ‘knife crime’ often conjures horrific images to the mind when the majority of the time it comes down to possession and not the use of the knife to harm. Kadiri also says that young people aren’t often asked why they have or do carry knives. When they are, most cite a need to feel safe or that they can protect themselves.

In a 2019 APPG on knife crime, a person was quoted as explaining that “when you step out of your house it feels like you might have to defend yourself”. 

Drug crime

The majority of stop and searches with any outcome other than an NFA uncover illegal drugs on the searched person. The use of drugs in London has risen as they have become cheaper, with stop and searches relating to drug offences rising steeply as well. 

Dame Carol Black’s independent review of drugs found that “over a third of the prison population are there for drugs-related crime. 40% have been convicted of a specific drugs offence (such as trafficking), while 60% are serving sentences for crimes related to drug addiction, such as theft.”

Ester Kincová, public affairs and policy manager at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, believes these numbers are indicative of a system that is not tackling the root issues. “Tackling drug crime for the Met has always been about putting people in prison, most of which should be considered vulnerable individuals who are very likely struggling with their drug use,” she explains.

She also refers to specific issues, such as county lines, as signs that the punitive measures that often begin with stop and search do little to stem the real issues. According to a report released three years ago, of the 4,013 London-based individuals involved in county lines operations, 46% were 15–19 years old. “Drug traffickers adapt to police tactics, an alternative means of tackling drug crime is needed to push back against them,” Kincová emphasises. 

When considering knife and drug crime, both StopWatch and Transform suggest and champion preventative methods of support and diversion over the current tendency towards stop and search.

On knife crime specifically, Kadiri expresses the need for early intervention. “Non-punitive solutions need to be employed further upstream; this has to do with building a sense of community, through extracurricular activities and youth groups, which have disappeared in the last few decades.”

Sian Berry’s report in 2020 found that the number of youth outreach services in London had decreased by around 101, with £35m being extracted from the council’s youth services budget. Kadiri’s words echo those of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation, which concluded, after an exploratory study, that the “key to addressing knife crime is early intervention and prevention”.

On drug crime, rather than stopping and searching, the police’s role should be to “divert them into appropriate services that can actually deal with this person and give them the support that they need”, Kincova explains. This isn’t wholly new to the UK in general, as she explains that there are at least 14 police services currently operating some form of drug offence diversion scheme.

More transformative diversion trials have resulted in lower re-offending rates. From there, Transform believes decriminalisation and legal regulation of drugs could be the answer to the wider issue of drug trafficking and manufacture.

The Casey Report found that stop and search is “deeply embedded in the Met’s culture”, along with a lack of transparency and a tendency towards racism, sexism and homophobia. The report strongly advocates for a “reset” of the stop and search system and argued that it is deployed “at the cost of legitimacy, trust and, therefore, consent”.

In lieu of stop and search, alternative tactics that are diversionary, interventionist and non-punitive could enable both the problems of knife crime and drug crime to be tackled in a different way.

[Read more: Policing in America is broken]

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