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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 06:28 GMT 07:28 UK
Pounding pavement or pushing paper?
By Lincoln Archer
BBC News Online

Part of Michael Howard's strategy on crime, outlined in early August, included a pledge to cut down on police bureaucracy by reducing the amount of paperwork they face.

Are bobbies on the beat battling a never-ending flood of filing? BBC News Online took a ride with the Brighton seafront cycle patrol to find out.

On a platform at Brighton station, two police officers board a train bound for London.

Brighton's PC Alex Wheatley checks paperwork
Time spent on stop and search paperwork '"insignificant" say police
A woman on board is suspected of carrying drugs, either on herself or concealed in the pram she has with her.

The officers remove the woman from the train and after grappling with her as she attempts to use a mobile phone, tell her she is about to be searched.

From this point on she is co-operative, telling police she has drugs in her bag and asking if she is allowed to call her mother to come and look after her baby.

She is arrested when one of the officers searching her bag finds crack cocaine.

"That's us done for the day," PC Mark Collins tells BBC News Online as his partner, PC Alex Wheatley, continues to question the woman.

When an arrest like this is made, finishing all the related forms can keep an officer busy for hours. But the same is true even for lesser offences.

"We can arrest someone for a 20 shoplift and still be dealing with it at the end of a shift," PC Wheatley said.

Paperwork plan

Michael Howard's plan to reduce paperwork centres on not adopting a recommendation of the Macpherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence, which called for the recording of ethnicity, name and address of anyone stopped by police.

At present, only those stopped and searched have their details taken down. Mr Howard said in his crime strategy that extending that to include all those stopped would see police wasting a large amount of their time on forms.

The officers in Brighton said stop and search forms create a "negligible" amount of paperwork.

Thousands flock to Brighton beach
We can arrest someone for a 20 shoplift and still be dealing with it at the end of a shift
PC Alex Wheatley, Brighton

"We work in pairs, so one (officer) can question the suspect while the other one can write it all down," PC Wheatley said.

"The amount of paperwork from a stop and search really is insignificant. Most of the paperwork comes from everything else we do."

On a weekend, when Brighton's population swells with an influx of sightseers from the rest of England and abroad, police say the number of stop and searches they conduct rises considerably.

"Here on the seafront we probably do more than most" other officers, PC Wheatley said.

Some of those searched are thought to be carrying drugs, while others attract attention for rowdy behaviour brought on by a night's drinking.

The stop and search form itself is quite small, including information such as the suspect's name, address, date of birth, ethnic origin, grounds for the search and what, if anything, was found.

The amount of time the process takes usually depends on the level of co-operation provided by the suspect.

If they answer the questions put to them, they are often detained only briefly. But if they protest, it can last much longer.

Creating work

Most of those stopped the day BBC News Online joined the patrol were questioned for merely a few minutes and only one - the woman at the station - was searched.

Only one of the others had their name taken down, but under the Macpherson report recommendation that will all change.

Police stop and search form
The stop and search form takes minutes to complete
The officers would then have been required to record the details of all the people they spoke to, from the homeless man selling a magazine to the cab driver who cut across oncoming traffic and the family stopped because their car was thought to have left the scene of a fight.

While the officers say the stop and search paperwork is not a hassle, that does not mean they want to be forced to create more of it.

As PC Wheatley pedalled towards Brighton train station, PC Collins was talking to a youth he had stopped, but whose details he chose not to take down.

"It wouldn't have been practical to take that person's name," he said.

"Now my partner's split from me and could be dealing with something serious and they want me to spend time taking down someone's name.

"It's not going to happen."


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