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Thursday, 14 December, 2000, 15:27 GMT
The power to stop and search
Conservative leader William Hague has blamed a rise in crime on police unwillingness to use their powers to stop and search for fear of being accused of racism. What are the powers?
The police power of stop and search was first introduced in 1984 and has proved to be a controversial issue.
Police say it is an essential tool in combating crime, but the high incidence of stops and searches among the black and Asian population has led to charges of police racism.
In particular police implementation of stop and search was criticised in the Macpherson report, published after an inquiry into the death of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
The report accused the Metropolitan Police of "institutional racism", and it stressed the "countrywide" incidence of stops and searches among ethnic minorities as one of the instances in which this was evident.
"Whilst we acknowledge and recognise the complexity of this issue... there remains, in our judgment, a clear core conclusion of racist stereotyping," it said.
Stop and search in action
Stop and search has sometimes been compared to the discredited "sus law" which empowered the police to arrest any person they suspected of loitering with intent to commit an arrestable offence.
Critics at the time said that it too was used to target ethnic minorities. The sus law caused widespread public concern and was abolished after the 1981 Brixton riots.
Stop and search is regulated by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Pace) and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. A police officer must have either a reasonable suspicion or belief that an offence has already been committed in order to carry out a stop and search.
According to Home Office statistics, just over one million stop and searches under Pace were recorded by police in 1998/9. Of these, 9% were black suspects, 5% were Asian and another 1 % non-white.
It found that overall, black people were six times more likely to be stopped than white people. This varied according to police forces across the country.
Statewatch, the civil rights group, has said that the police in some forces are eight times more likely to stop and search black people than whites.
In 1998/9 12% of stop and searches resulted in an arrest - 1% up on the previous year. Overall the proportion of arrests for ethnic minorities was slightly higher than for white people.
Stop and search: A success story?
It found that stop and search contributed to up to 12% of arrests overall in the Metropolitan area and that the power indirectly helped the detection and prevention of crime through the intelligence the searches generated.
But crucially the report found that the number of incidents of stop and search in London had halved since the Stephen Lawrence report 10 months earlier.
The fall in searches was found to be "directly related" to a rise in crime during the same period.
A 'more positive' approach
It seemed that police officers were so worried about being accused of racism they were avoiding using their powers.
The police welcomed the report, saying it showed for the first time a firm statistical link between stop and search and crime, and would boost confidence in the power.
The report supported previous findings that blacks were more likely to be searched than whites - particularly during the evening and at night.
But it also found that officers were using the powers far less than they should be.
The report recommended "a more positive approach" which "encourages officers to use the power professionally and to do so within a clearly defined framework".
It also said there should be "clear information" targeted especially at young people about the circumstances in which they are liable to be stopped and searched - and what they can expect to happen if they are.
There has been speculation that stop and search powers may have to be redrafted as a result of the Human Rights Act. The high number of ethnic minority people stopped may fall foul of the act's Article 14 which prohibits discriminatory treatment.
The government's new Race Relations Amendment Act will also attempt to tackle the disproportionate use of stop and search against ethnic minorities.
A police officer who use his or her powers and stops someone solely on the grounds of their race or colour, could be challenged with "direct discrimination" or "victimisation". In addition, the police will also be subject to the general duty to promote race equality.
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