Jennifer Schmidt-Petersen, Programme and Student Lead, Policing Programmes

ULaw Blog: Will stop and search protect or polarise our society?

I think the answer to that depends entirely on how it is being applied and if we can also repair the relationship between the police and the black community. Stop and search is a tool and tools can be used productively or destructively.

Personally, I do believe, that police need a tool to search if they are reasonably suspecting that a crime has been committed but it needs to be used correctly and responsibly.

The figures showing that black people are significantly more likely to be stopped and searched are problematic and in my view they are likely to be the result of a number of factors.

It is important to acknowledge problems where they exist. To my mind that also means acknowledging systemic structural injustices and problems engrained in modern society as a whole because they will naturally be reflected in practise There is a need to recognize the anger and hurt in people and communities who feel that they are not treated fairly and who may feel powerless and not represented or listened to.

My view is that this anger is not the result of an isolated incident but of a long-standing history of injustice and structural inequality. We also need to be aware that this anger will influence how an individual incident may be perceived and if we want to move to a culture of mutual respect and understanding then perception is a key factor.

Why are people being stopped and searched?

According to the Metropolitan police website drugs accounted for the single largest reason for searches carried out by Met police officers (59% in 2018/19) instead of being directed at serious or violent crimes.

So I think one key question to consider here is if we need to look at drug policy. Is our current legislation criminalising particular groups of society and does it need updating?

Is there are a racist element with regard to how drug policies were developed? Many criminologists and sociologists, including myself, would argue that there is.

Should we therefore revisit and revise in the light of the experience and data we have gained since legislation was first published? In my view we should but this is of course not a question for the police but for legislators and society as a whole.

Is stop and search effective?

Statistically speaking the number of stop and searches leading to an arrest is low so I think in order to determine if it is effective we first need to ask ourselves what its purpose is.

According to the College of Policing “The primary purpose of stop and search powers is to enable officers to allay or confirm suspicions about individuals carrying unlawful items, without exercising their power of arrest, where the officer has reasonable grounds for carrying out a search.”

However, I think we also need to consider the cost and if the perception is that some groups in our society feel victimised by this practise then I think that we need to take that seriously.

My personal view is that the solution is not to remove the power to stop and search but, instead, I think we need to look at the underlying issues, one of which in my view is the fractured relationship between the police and the black community.

That also means we need to look at police training with regards to stop and search and we also need to start rebuilding mutual trust and understanding.

If a situation is ambiguous, which stop and search is likely to be, it is especially important that officers look objectively at why they are stopping and searching someone.

I also think that it is absolutely crucial that stop and search is carried out professionally and correctly as we know that the quality of the interaction will have a huge influence on how both the stop and the officer are perceived.

What role does procedural justice theory play?

Procedural justice theory states that if people feel treated fairly and with respect by the police then they will in turn have more respect for them, see them as legitimate and will comply.

So I think that tells us two important things here.

  1. It is crucial how a stop is conducted and how an officer explains the situation and what is happening
  2. A lot of people, especially in the black community, do not feel they are being treated fairly by police. So again, it is vital that we repair that relationship which will be a process that will not happen overnight and it will not happen if we don’t first accept that there is a problem – the problem in my view being the ruptured relationship between the black community and the police.

It will not always be possible to please everyone but officers need to be aware of the impact that their actions and the way the search is conducted have.

What is ULaw’s BSc (hons) in Professional Policing doing to address these issues?

We want policing to be accessible for people from all backgrounds and demographics and we want our students to be part of the change and transformation that is happening in policing.

We believe that the new generation of police officers has a huge role to play when it comes to making policing more representative and bringing it into the 21st century.

Therefore our policing degree not only provides students with the relevant legal knowledge but also introduces them to key psychological concepts related to human behaviour and decision making.

This will allow students to understand and analyse psychological mechanisms that can lead to bias, stereotyping, discrimination and abuses of power. Students will be able to apply those skills to examine their own decision-making process which will enhance reflective ability and facilitate a professional approach.

In addition, students will learn about the history of the police and be able to better understand the difficult relationship and history between the police and the black community.

Thanks for reading this article…

If you have enjoyed reading this blog and are interested in the subject matter, then these courses might be for you.

*Subject to approval

Enquire Now

Sign up to receive updates about news and events from The University of Law