Community scrutiny of stop and search

Black people are 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites. The Criminal Justice Alliance urges community scrutiny.

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Stop and search can have a negative effect on young BAME people’s trust in the police. But to tackle violent crime, communities need to have confidence to contact the police and share information. Community scrutiny of police powers helps to build trust, hold the police to account and make our communities safer. On the 20th anniversary of the Macpherson Report, this briefing from the CJA provides a timely blueprint for ensuring effective scrutiny of stop and search across the country.

Detective Sergeant Janet Hills

The quote from DS Hills above, Chair of the Metropolitan Black Police Association, appears in the foreword of an important new report from the Criminal Justice Alliance arguing for community scrutiny of local police stop and search practices. It is based on a survey of Community Scrutiny Panels in all the police services of England and Wales.

Key Findings

  • The use of stop and search has declined significantly since 2011 but this trend appears to be slowing and, in some areas, reversing. Moreover, the power’s disproportionate use against black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people compared to white people has increased in recent years. BAME people are now over four times as likely to be searched as white people, and black people in particular are over nine times as likely to be searched. When stop and search is perceived to be used unfairly, it has a negative effect on BAME people’s trust in the police, which hampers the police’s ability to effectively investigate crime and protect the public.
  • A key lesson of the Lammy Review into the treatment of BAME people in the criminal justice system found ‘bringing decision-making out into the open and exposing it to scrutiny is the best way of delivering fair treatment’. For stop and search in particular, scrutiny by communities most affected by its use can play a crucial role in in building trust by providing transparency and accountability.
  • Community Scrutiny Panels (CSPs), composed of members of the public, should be the primary vehicles for this function. While there is a significant lack of consistency and effectiveness in how CSPs operate across police force areas in England and Wales, there are nonetheless some examples of good practice that should be applied more widely.
  • CSPs need to be able to operate independently and must be seen to be doing so. However, almost a third of respondent CSPs are not chaired by a member of the public, but instead by representatives from the police or the office of the Police and Crime Commissioner. 
  • Effective scrutiny requires openness to constructive criticism and willingness to listen and learn. CSPs must be able to submit feedback to the police on practice and policy and receive appropriate responses on action taken. Some areas have implemented clear processes, but this should be the case for all CSPs.
  • CSP membership needs to represent communities most affected by stop and search. However, a third of respondent CSPs do not monitor the demographics of their members and most CSPs only recruit new members ‘as and when needed’ rather than ensuring membership is periodically renewed.
  • CSP members need access to sufficient initial and ongoing training to carry out their duties effectively. Almost a quarter of respondent CSPs offered no training. Where training was offered, there was a lack of consistency in its content across forces.
  • The data and information available to CSPs, and the process by which it is selected, is variable and in some circumstances can limit CSPs’ ability to scrutinise and challenge. There are particular concerns with access to and the process for viewing body worn video.
  • CSPs need to be transparent and open about their remit, activities and membership. Only half of the survey responses said their CSP’s terms of reference are publicly available and over three quarters said their panel meetings were not open to the public. More needs to be done to ensure all CSPs meaningfully engage young people, BAME communities and people with experience of being stopped and searched.
  • CSPs are key stakeholders in the ‘community complaints trigger’. However, two thirds of respondent CSPs were not consulted in the design of the trigger process and less than a third reviewed their trigger process regularly.

Principles for Community Scrutiny Panels

The report advocates four key principles for CSPs:

  1. Independent and empowered: Led by the community, acts as a ‘critical friend’, provides constructive challenge and influences change.
  2. Representative: Reflects the communities most affected by stop and search, stays dynamic by periodically reviewing and refreshing its membership and actively engages young people and BAME people in its work.
  3. Informed: Has effective and transparent access to a wide range of data and records on stop and search, including body worn video footage, and access to appropriate training and guidance.
  4. Open and visible: Promotes its work widely in the community, particularly with young people and ‘harder to reach’ groups, publishes summaries of meetings and outcomes, and is easily contactable by members of the public.

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