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Questioning stop and search

Could drugs policy actually have a negative impact on the communities that it is designed  to protect?

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The London riots in August of last year were a serious wake up call on police and community relations. In their aftermath, youths who were interviewed talked, among other issues, of their bitterness at being stopped and searched scores of times.

Given the fear of gang-related crime on the streets of the capital, the use of stop and search may seem like a regrettable but necessary tool – except that it is a fairly ineffective tactic for detecting crime. In one inner London borough it has a success rate of just seven per cent. This means that 93 out of 100 people that are stopped have done nothing wrong and are not carrying drugs or knives.

This was one of the findings of Daniel Bear, a researcher who spent a year in the field with street level police officers and safer neighbourhood teams observing the implementation of drugs policy in London. He did the same 12 hour shifts as the officers, riding around in police cars and going to community meetings.

Bear noticed that while cannabis is fairly low on the list of communities’ concerns, the police use a remarkably high level of stop and search to detect the drug. He argues that the motivation to stop and search is less about drugs policy and more about the police having to demonstrate how effective they are. Officers are often judged on how many ‘sanction detections’ they have made – this is when a crime is detected, the perpetrator identified and then bought to justice. Warning someone over cannabis possession is an easy way to do this.

The idea that you could bring measures of efficacy and efficiency into public service bodies such as the police began under John Major's prime ministership in the 1990s. However, this approach of 'public managerialism' ignores the fact that the number of stop and searches, arrests and sanction detections do not reflect the true depth of policing. But the need to respond to it can shape both the organisation's and the individual's response.

The perverse incentives within the system are underscored when you consider that an officer might never receive the credit for the work that he or she does on a serious case, such as rape, because it will be passed up to a more senior colleague. On the other hand, the paper work for an offence like shoplifting takes 8 - 10  hours to get to the point of a sanction detection. Filing a sanction detection for cannabis possession takes between just 30 minutes and an hour.

 Bear describes seeing the unitended consequences of this system. He says: “On several occasions I would work with officers who went out at the beginning of a shift to try and find cannabis. They were quite blunt about the need to get a sanction detection, after which they could do some real policing, doing the things that help the community.”

However the irony is that this approach is actually having a negative affect on the community.  Being stopped and searched is not just a personal inconvenience for the usually young black men who experience it time and time again. It breeds mistrust and alienation in them, their families and the wider community.

 "It’s not that the police are unprofessional but they are tasked with finding criminality. And stop and search, one of the tools they use, can be quite a negative experience - having your pockets and clothes searched through for example," says Bear.

"People who don’t trust the police have been shown to be less likely to report crimes to the police or help them solve them. This can then leads to more criminality in the neighbourhood and, in turn, this reflects poorly on the police who then have to respond with more stop and searches and stronger investigative approaches. You can see how this could all create a potentially downward spiral."

In defence of the police, Bear believes that they come under pressure from two sides. On the one hand from politicians and the tabloids who demand a tough response to violence and anti-social behaviour on our streets. And yet, on the other  hand, they are tasked wtih  being more responsive to and proactive about the communities' needs.

“People come into policing because they’re looking for a career where they can help the community," he says. "If they’re not able to do that at the moment we need to think how we can restructure and continue to improve the metropolitan police and services across the UK in a way that engenders a connection with the community that isn’t there right now.”

Listen to Daniel Bear on this story - from the LSE podcast Causes & Things. Or download the item|

Listen to the whole of this episode of Causes & Things|

Posted June 2012

Useful links

For more details about Daniel Bear's research see his personal website: Daniel Bear|

The distorted measurements of drugs policy risk harming the community|, Daniel Bear's blog posting on British Politics and Policy at LSE