Commission to put police forces on notice over stop and search tactics

Warning from Commission over disproportionate use of stop and search by police

15 March 2010

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is to write to the police forces with the most disproportionate use of stop and search tactics to raise its concerns over possible breaches of the Race Relations Act.

The Commission today published a comprehensive review into the use of stop and search across England and Wales, which concludes that a number of forces are using the tactics in a way that is disproportionate and possibly discriminatory.

The review into 42 policing areas during the past five years has found that few police forces have made improvements and most continue to use their stop and search powers disproportionately against black and Asian people. In fact, some police forces have actually increased their use of stop and search against ethnic minorities.

Nationally, black people are still stopped and searched at least six times the rate of white people. Asian people are about twice as likely to be stopped and searched as white people. The evidence suggests racial stereotyping and discrimination are significant factors behind the higher rates of stops and searches for black and Asian people than white people. 

The Commission’s research reveals that some of the police forces with the most disproportionate use of stop and search powers against black people were Dorset, Hampshire, Leicestershire and Wandsworth. In Hampshire, the ratio increased dramatically in 2007/08 (see attached table - Word format).

However, the report found evidence from some police forces that fairer use of stop and search powers can go hand in hand with crime reduction and increased public confidence in the police. 

For example, a Practice Oriented Package initiative introduced in Stoke-on-Trent, which sets out best practice in stop and search, has resulted in the disproportionality ratio in Stoke dropping to 1.5 when comparing black stops and searches to white. 

The results of the Stop and Think Report were supported by an independent study produced for the Commission and also launched today. It examined how much control was influenced by the police on the ethnic composition of young people entering the youth justice system. The researchers found that black and ethnic minority youths were over-represented in the criminal justice system. This over-representation started at the point of entry into the system, and largely continued as young suspects and defendants passed through it. 

The report, Differential treatment in the youth justice system argues that an adversarial style of policing risks creating animosity and distrust towards the police, especially amongst youths from ethnic minorities. It says that when police forces adopt a professional ‘rule of law’ approach, the result is fewer arrests of black and mixed race youths and improved relationships with their community. Researchers found that officers were also more likely to give white youths more lenient reprimands or fines, while black and mixed race youths were more likely to be charged with crimes. This was the case even when the alleged crimes and the individuals’ criminal histories were similar.

The Commission’s Stop and Think report uses data from the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, the Metropolitan Police and the Office for National Statistics, to analyse trends in stop and search use around the country.

Across England and Wales there were 22 stops and searches per 1,000 people in 2007/08. Breaking this down for the different ethnic groups it reveals that the black population had the highest rate of stop and search at over 110 per 1,000; the rate for Asian people was over 30 per 1,000, and it was 17 per 1,000 for white people.

If black people were stopped and searched at the same rate as white people in 2007/2008, there would have be around 25,000 stops and searches of black people. Instead, there were over 170,000.

Other findings include:

  • Some of the highest Asian/white disproportionate rates during the past five years were seen in the West Midlands, Thames Valley, West Mercia and South Yorkshire.
  • The biggest impact in terms of numbers of ‘excess’ stops and searches is seen in London where the stop and search rate is highest and where a high percentage of the black and Asian population lives.
  • Outside London, large excesses are also seen in the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Thames Valley for black stops and searches and in the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Thames Valley for Asian stops and searches.

The Commission concludes that a National Policing Improvement Agency initiative due for roll-out in 2010 which aims to address the disproportionate use of stop and search tactics, needs to be rigorously implemented and monitored, if it is to be effective. 

Commissioner Simon Woolley from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: 'It is time that we saw real improvement in these statistics. It is not enough for the police simply to launch new initiatives if those initiatives don’t produce results. 

'There is little evidence to suggest that targeting black people disproportionately with stop and search powers reduces crime. In fact, this report shows evidence that police forces, like Staffordshire and Cleveland, which have used fairer stop and search tactics have not only seen reductions in crimes rates in line with overall trends, but have also increased public confidence in the police.

'It is unrealistic and unhelpful to demand that policing should be perfect. However, police services should strive to work fairly and effectively while respecting basic human rights and discrimination law. Only then can they be said to be ‘good enough’.

'The Commission will be looking closely at this research and will be writing to police forces with the most concerning statistics to gain a better understanding of how they are meeting their obligations under the Race Relations Act. We cannot rule out taking legal action against some police forces.' 

Ends

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Notes to editors

1.    The majority of stops and searches in England and Wales are conducted under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE).

2.    The following definitions are used in the Stop and Think report:

  • Stop and search rates by ethnic group are calculated from the number of stops and searches divided by the estimated resident population in that ethnic group. These are expressed per 1,000 people aged 10 and over.
  • Disproportionality ratios refer to the ratios of the stop and search rates for different ethnic groups. These allow comparison of rates for different ethnic groups and are used here to compare black and Asian populations with the white population.
  • Excess stops and searches in comparison with the white population are calculated from the number of black or Asian stops and searches that would result if their stop and search rates were equal to that of the white population in the same area. The ‘excess’ is obtained by subtracting this figure from the actual number of stops and searches. This is equivalent to the product of the size of the black or Asian population multiplied by the difference between the stop and search rates for the black or Asian and white populations. Excesses will therefore be higher where there is are larger black/Asian populations and/or the difference between the black/Asian and white stop and search rates is greater

3.  T. May, T. Gyateng and M. Hough, Differential treatment in the youth justice system, Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report no. 50, (Manchester: Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2010). It was primarily funded by the Economic and Social Research Council with significant funding contribution by the Commission for Racial Equality. The research report is based on initial findings, it has been quality-assured by academic members of an independent advisory committee.