Disproportionate use of police powers
Last week (26 February 2021) Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) published a new report: Disproportionate use of police powers – A spotlight on stop and search and the use of force. The Inspectorate said that police forces must explain the disproportionate use of police powers such as stop and search and use of force on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people or risk losing the trust of the communities they serve. HMICFRS said that despite having more data on the use of force and stop and search, police forces are still unable to explain why these powers are used disproportionately based on ethnicity.
This report is based on:
- Published national and force-level data on stop and search and on the use of force from 2019/20;
- The findings of HMICFRS’s 2018/19 Integrated PEEL Assessments covering police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy; and
- The results of a review of a representative sample of 9,378 stop and search records from 2019, which looked at the reasonableness and strength of recorded grounds, motivations for stop and search, and whether drugs searches involved a suspicion of possession or supply.
Home Office data from 2019-20 shows that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people were over four times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people – with the figure almost nine times higher for black people specifically. Black people were also over 5.5 times more likely to have force used on them than white people.
Interactions with the public
Inspectors concluded that, generally, forces are improving how they train their officers and staff in preventing unfair behaviour by combatting unconscious bias. They also found that forces are better at ensuring their workforces apply this training when interacting with the public. However, inspectors found that more needs to be done and training alone isn’t enough. They urge leaders to recognise that training will only bring about lasting improvement if the culture in the force is one of diversity, inclusion and equality.
In too many forces, officers and staff are not being provided with the skills they need to understand how they come across in everyday interactions. Nor are they being shown how they can build rapport to help prevent conflict and escalation in order to secure public co-operation and reduce the need for conflict management, de-escalation and the use of force.
The report says that too few forces regularly review body-worn video footage as part of their internal monitoring and external scrutiny of stop and search and use of force and urges them to make more use of this valuable source of information.
Use of force
While data about the use of Tasers and firearms has been collected for several years, data about use of force in general has been collected only since 2017, and so is not yet fully developed and has some limitations. Forces’ processes for monitoring and scrutinising data are valuable in helping them to understand the level and nature of their use of force, but in too many cases are also still in development.
The 2019/20 data indicates that Black people were about 5.7 times more likely to have force used on them than White people. The data further shows that officers were more than nine times as likely to have drawn Tasers (but not discharged them) on Black people than on White people. Additionally, Black people were eight times more likely to be ‘compliant handcuffed’14 than White people and over three times more likely to have a spit and bite guard used on them than White people.
While inspectors acknowledged that officer safety is important, they reported anecdotal evidence that the use of handcuffs during stop and search encounters is becoming routine in some forces. It is not currently possible to establish how many of the over 350,000 uses of handcuffs in 2019/20 occurred during a stop and search encounter. Until this data is available and can be monitored, there is a risk that some handcuffing during stop and search could be unjustified, unnecessary and therefore unlawful.
Stop and Search
Inspectors were forthright about their concerns on the disproportionate use of Stop and Search:
“Over 35 years on from the introduction of stop and search legislation, no force fully understands the impact of the use of these powers. Disproportionality persists and no force can satisfactorily explain why. In 2019/20, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people were over four times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people; for Black people specifically, this was almost nine times more likely. In some forces, the likelihood was much higher. Black people were also 18 times more likely than White people to be searched under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. This gives officers time-limited powers to search any individuals in an area, without requiring reasonable grounds, in order to recover offensive weapons or dangerous instruments in anticipation of serious violence.”
Inspectors’ analysis found that most searches are for drugs, and the majority of those are for possession rather than the more serious offence of supply. And most searches are self-generated – that is, initiated spontaneously by the officer in response to what they see or hear, rather than intelligence-led or as a result of information from a third party. The prevalence of self-generated, possession-only drug searches, about a quarter of which find drugs, indicates that stop and search is not always being targeted at offences that are the most serious and high priority for forces, or that matter most to the public.
The inspectorate said that over 35 years since the introduction of stop and search, the police still cannot explain why these powers are used disproportionately. HMICFRS found that the most common reason given for the use of these powers is due to suspected drug possession. This unfairness risks further reducing public trust in the police and could lead to more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people being drawn into the criminal justice system.
As a result, the inspectorate is calling on police leaders to consider whether focusing stop and search on tackling drug possession is an effective use of these powers.
HMICFRS also called for police forces to analyse their data and either explain, with evidence, the reasons for disproportionality in stop and search and use of force, or take clear action to address it.