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Drivers of police activity and experiences of stop and search

Stop and search
Published: March 2021

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities was established in July 2020, with the aim of examining inequalities across the UK and making evidence-based recommendations to address ethnic disparities. As part of the Commission’s work, we were appointed to conduct independent qualitative consultations on higher education, employment and criminal justice in November 2020-January 2021.

This included research to understand more about the drivers and experiences of the stop and search process.

Aims of the study

This consultation aimed to understand:

  • The views and experiences of Black and South Asian young men who have been stopped and searched by the police.
  • The views and experiences of police officers in relation to the stop and search process, including how out of court disposals (OOCDs; e.g. cautions, warnings, and fixed penalty notices) are used in practice as part of stop and search activity.

Findings

Overall, the findings of this research suggest:

  • In/consistency in the initiation of stop and search: Police participants suggested there is consistency in the initiation of stop and search and related processes, due to high levels of governance and scrutiny. However, young men who participated in the research reported inconsistency in their interactions with police officers while being stopped and searched. This ranged from calm, friendly interactions to negative and hostile experiences.
  • Lack of trust and confidence in the police: Young men and police participants discussed a lack of trust and lack of confidence in the police. Both participant groups highlighted fear among Black and ethnic minority communities that they will be disproportionately targeted and unfairly treated via stop and search.
  • The effect of racial stereotypes: Young men and police participants noted that racial stereotypes are likely to exacerbate police officers’ perceptions of suspicious behaviour.
  • Reasonable grounds?: The young men who took part in this research felt that the reasonable grounds used to initiate stop and search often lacked legitimacy. This was particularly the case for Section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Both young men and police participants questioned whether the smell of cannabis alone should be considered ‘reasonable grounds’.
  • Effective communication: Young men and police participants stressed the importance of effective communication, particularly regarding the reasons for initiating stop and search.
  • Police officer discretion: Police participants described some discretion in officers’ decision-making around outcomes for low-level, first-time, and often youth, offences, including use of OOCDs. However, they felt outcomes are reasonably consistent due to standardised grading, points systems and panel scrutiny.

Methodology

We conducted a combination of online focus groups, paired and one-to-one depth interviews in December 2020. This included:

  • Interviews and focus groups with Black and South Asian young men (age 18-30) who had been stopped and searched by the police.
  • Interviews and focus groups with operational and strategic police officers.

Focus groups with Black and South Asian young men were broadly organised by ethnicity, and were facilitated by lead moderators from a similar ethnic background to participants. This design aimed to create a safe space in which participants could discuss their views and experiences. As discussions often covered potentially distressing topics, including experiences of racism, the research team provided relevant support information at the end of each focus group and interview with young men.