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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 October 2005, 05:10 GMT 06:10 UK
Are police misusing stop-and-search?
By Christian Fraser
BBC home affairs correspondent

Scene of bus explosion in Tavistock Square, London
The London blasts have led to a heightened sense of alert
Stops and searches under anti-terror laws have risen dramatically since the London suicide bombings of 7 July, research for the BBC shows.

The BBC contacted 43 police forces and 18 volunteered their own figures collected since 7 July.

Over half of those that replied to inquiries by the BBC said they had stopped more people in the last three months under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act of 2000 than they had in the previous year.

In Hampshire, for example, there have been 4,438 stops and searches since July compared to 696 for 2003/4.

Humberside is another force where the use of the powers has jumped significantly.

There were just four searches in Humberside in 2003/4, yet in the last three months, there were 1,830.

In Kent there were just 56 stops and searches in the last three months: in a county that is home to the Channel Tunnel and the channel ports.

And some forces like Cumbria and Devon and Cornwall have not used the power at all.

It gives officers the power to stop-and-search at random provided the area they are policing has been identified by the Home Office as one that might be targeted by terrorists

The figures are not entirely surprising given the heightened sense of alert in recent months but the research does throw up certain questions about why certain forces are using the powers more than others.

In recent months the use of Section 44 has become increasingly controversial.

It gives officers the power to stop and search at random provided the area they are policing has been identified by the Home Office as one that might be targeted by terrorists.

Brighton, in the week of the Labour Party Conference, was a designated area of risk and accordingly police were given Section 44 powers.

The veteran party activist Walter Wolfgang was one of 600 stopped under the Act as he tried to re-enter the conference.

M3 pictures

Police do have powers to stop and search people under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 - but that requires officers to have "reasonable suspicion" that a criminal act is being committed. There is no such requirement under Section 44.

This week a 21-year-old student was stopped and warned by police under Section 44 for taking pictures of the M3.

Matthew Curtis had been gathering images for the website of a design company, where he works part-time when he was stopped, searched and cautioned.

Stops and searches in 2003-04
Avon and Somerset - 0
North Wales - 2
Gloucestershire - 1,355
City of London - 7,252
Metropolitan - 15,535

He was told at the time that he was in a "vulnerable area" and was made to account for his actions.

Assistant Chief Constable Simon Cole from Hampshire Police said, "We have apologised to Mr Curtis. We felt it was an appropriate use of the powers. We now know what he was doing but the officers involved did not know at the time."

In response to the BBC's survey he said it should be noted that Hampshire had a number of ports and naval bases.

In the last few weeks Hampshire has also played host to the Trafalgar Day celebrations.

In 2001 there were 8,500 stops and searches under the Terrorism Act 2002.

The following year, there were 21,500 and for the year 2003-04, the last for which annual figures are available, there were 29,407.

People stopped under Section 44 powers were eight times more likely to be arrested for other offences, including motoring offences

Although these led to some arrests for terrorism-related offences (though not of terrorists themselves), people stopped under Section 44 powers were eight times more likely to be arrested for other offences, including motoring offences.

In his annual review of the Terrorism Act, Lord Carlile said the use of Section 44 "could be cut by at least 50% without significant risk to the public or detriment to policing".

The Home Office minister Hazel Blears has given government assurances that the powers would only be deployed when there is "a good reason to believe that there is genuinely a terrorist threat".

But critics say these latest figures add weight to the growing concerns that the powers are being misused.


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