Criminologist Marian FitzGerald on stop and search

In response to the government’s announcement that it plans to extend the use of stop and search, Marian FitzGerald, Visiting Professor of Criminology at the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Research, said:

“The Home Secretary is knowingly misusing the figures for arrests for offensive weapons in order to justify making it easier for the police to use an emergency power to search the public at random in certain areas.

“Priti Patel’s plan to relax controls on the ‘Section 60[i]’ power will increase the scope for officers to search any individual they choose without needing to give a reason for targeting them. It was co-signed by Boris Johnson and Kit Malthouse who, as the Mayor for London and his Deputy for Policing, had vigorously promoted the intensive use of Section 60 in parts of the capital from 2008 on the pretext of tackling knife crime[ii].

“Far from reducing knife crime, the Johnson-Malthouse approach further entrenched a problem which has become more intractable ever since. In doing so, they were also replicating the conditions which gave rise to the riots which erupted in Brixton in 1981 and rapidly spread to other parts of the country. In August 2011, it was no coincidence that there had been a marked increase in the use of s60 searches in Haringey during the three months before the killing of Mark Duggan became the trigger which sparked the rioting in Haringey which then spread faster than in 1981 thanks to means of communication which were unheard then.

“At their height in London between 2008 and 2011[iii] the proportion of s60 searches which resulted in an arrest for carrying an offensive weapon of any sort was consistently less than 0.5 per cent. In England and Wales, s60 searches accounted for  only 1 per cent of the ‘almost 7,000 arrests for offensive weapons’ in the financial year 2017-18[iv] which Priti Patel cited as having been ‘made following a stop and search’.  The rest resulted from ‘Section 1[v]’ searches by police officers, as did all of the 900 firearms arrests she included in these figures.

“The Section 1 power allows officers to search individuals in public but only if they have ‘reasonable grounds for suspicion’ that the individual in question is at that time in possession of items obtained dishonestly or prohibited by law[vi]. Between 2007/8 and 2013/14 Section 1 searches had produced on average over 12,000 arrests per year for offensive weapons. But the number of Section 1 searches fell dramatically in 2014 in immediate response to reforms introduced by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May[vii]. The number has continued to fall each year and the related loss of s1 arrests for offensive weapons has coincided with the rise in knife crime.

“This makes it all the more curious that if, as she claims, the present Home Secretary is ‘determined to put a stop to the knife crime epidemic’ her chosen strategy is to promote the use of s60 rather than reversing the decline in s1 searches.”

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[i]  Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was introduced to deal with violence at football matches. Where a force anticipated an outbreak of serious violence a senior officer could authorize the imposition of a Section 60 order on a designated local area within which officers had the right to undertake random searches without needing the reasonable grounds for suspicion required for conducting each s1 search (see further below). However, the order was limited to a 24 hour period which only in exceptional circumstances could be extended to 36 hours.

[ii]  The initiative was officially launched by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) as a renewal of Operation Blunt, its existing programme for tackling the problem of knife crime in London. The use of s60 searches which characterised Operation Blunt 2, though, was heavily promoted by the new mayor and his deputy; and the take-up varied widely between the London boroughs, including those with the highest levels of recorded knife crime. An experienced senior officer in one such borough volunteered privately to me at the time that he was ‘resisting the political pressure’ to use s60 searches ‘disproportionately’ bearing in mind the MPS legacy from  a similar previous operation. It was the large scale public searching of black people under ‘Operation Swamp 81’ which had precipitated the Brixton riots of that year.

[iii]  Largely unremarked, the number of s60 searches conducted by the MPS fell from just under 54,000 in the year before the riots of August 2011 to just over 3,000 the year afterwards.

[iv]  These are the latest of the figures published annually by the Home Office. Based on previous years, it seems unlikely that those for 2018-19 will be available before October 2019.

[v]  The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was effectively one of several government responses to the Scarman Inquiry into the Brixton riots of 1981. It provided for a wide range of safeguards for individuals against the abuse of police powers. As an example of this, the constraints Section 1 placed on police searches was an important symbol of these reforms in light of Operation Swamp 81.

[vi]  The items covered are those which have been obtained dishonestly as well as items which are prohibited by law – whether per se (as in the case of firearms) or in circumstances where an individual may reasonably be suspected of carrying them with the intention of committing an offence (as is often the case with weapons which in a different context might not be ‘offensive’ at all).

[vii]  On 30 April 2014 Theresa May announced ‘a comprehensive package of reform’ to searches in a speech in parliament. She placed particular emphasis on the ‘worrying statistics’ which showed the over-representation of black people in the search figures; and highlighted the provision she had introduced to ensure that individual officers who ‘are not using their powers properly’ became liable to ‘formal performance or disciplinary proceedings’. She concluded :

I want to make myself absolutely clear: if the numbers do not come down, if stop and search does not become more targeted, if those stop-to-arrest ratios do not improve considerably, the government will return with primary legislation to make these things happen. Because, Mr Speaker, nobody wins when stop and search is misapplied. It is a waste of police time. It is unfair, especially to young, black men. It is bad for public confidence in the police. That is why these are the right reforms and it’s why I commend this statement to the House.