Searching for Solutions

by Jackie Driver

Published: 25 Sep 2015

As a black man living in the Midlands, Nick Glynn estimates that he has been stopped and searched by police more than 30 times in his life. He talks quite openly about feeling scared and frustrated at being stopped. Nick’s not done anything wrong, but the disproportionate amount of times it has happened to him (and many other black people across the country) leads him to believe that the colour of his skin is the issue.

Nick also describes another feeling – embarrassment – embarrassment because he’s a police inspector and he can see that the powers of stop and search aren’t being used fairly or proportionately by his colleagues up and down the country, and in many cases are doing more harm than good.

If a serving police officer admits feeling intimidated by police use of stop and search, we can only imagine how the countless other black and Asian people who are the victims of the disproportionate use of these powers must feel.

In 2010, the Commission published its biggest ever piece of research in this area. Stop and Think revealed that if you are a black person, you are six times more likely to be stopped and searched by police in England and Wales than if you are a white person. If you are Asian, you are twice as likely to be stopped as a white person. Although recent figures show a welcome decline in the use of stop and search (down 12 per cent from the previous year), a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary published earlier this year shows that progress has been disappointingly slow.

The arguments around stop and search are well rehearsed but are still worth outlining. When used in a lawful, non-arbitrary, non-discriminate manner and on the basis of reasonable suspicion, it can be a useful tool for the police and something that can protect the whole population. However, when these standards are not met, the use of stop and search not only fails to adhere to international human rights law but can be hugely damaging to the relationship between the police and the public and can risk alienating certain sections of our communities.

For this reason, we have repeatedly highlighted our concerns about the disproportionate use of stop and search against members of ethnic communities in our reports to the United Nations when monitoring the UK’s compliance with its treaty obligations, most recently in our submission in May on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

As a follow up to our high profile reports over recent years on the disproportionate use of stop and search powers, we invited the College of Policing to develop a new and comprehensive stop and search training programme for officers. It will be piloted this month and will focus on tackling unconscious bias and discrimination, with particular reference to racial discrimination.

An unconscious bias is the unconscious attribution of particular qualities to a member of a certain social group which may contribute to the decision to stop and search an individual rather than a reasonable suspicion of commission of a crime.

Research has shown that beliefs and values gained from family, culture and a lifetime of experiences heavily influence how we view and evaluate both others and ourselves. The training will also focus on appropriate behaviours and actions in dealing with members of the public when stopped. 

The training is designed to reduce the number of cases when stop and search is disproportionately applied – estimated to be in 27 per cent of cases according to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which could amount to more than a quarter of a million stop searches each year.

Nick Glynn, who helped the College design the training, said the aim is 'trying to get the officers not to act on autopilot' and not to 'allow negative stereotypes to affect decision-making around the use of these highly intrusive powers'. As Nick knows from personal experience, this is something we simply have to get right.