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Developing Fair and Effective Stop and Search Powers


Safety and liberty – public goods delivered by the police – are important to every individual and essential to a civilised society. Yet in 1999, public policy debate on police “stop and search” practices had reached an impasse. The debate was polarised with police arguing on pragmatic grounds that disproportionality was not indicative of institutional racism, but an inevitable product of differences in crime rates among different ethnic groups and their concentration in the places and at the times that stop and search is carried out. Reformers in turn argued that disproportionality was unacceptable in principle and indicative of discriminatory police practice.

Since the late 1990s, Professor Ben Bowling of The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London, has been researching these issues and working to contribute to police practice and public policy. 

In 1999, he published Violent Racism, a well-reviewed monograph which was subsequently submitted to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999. This examined the organisational culture and practices of police work, and set out the theoretical basis for understanding institutional racism in policing. The monograph was quoted during Inquiry hearings and cited in the report as making an ‘important contribution’ to the Inquiry’s understanding. 

This was followed by Racism, Crime and Justice (2002), the first significant textbook on race and policing, co-authored by Professor Bowling and Dr Coretta Phillips. He also published two key articles. First, an article in the Modern Law Review (pdf) presented empirical research demonstrating that the disproportionate impact of stop and search on black and ethnic minority communities amounted to direct and indirect discrimination. Second, a paper in the Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention (pdf) drew on theoretical and empirical research findings to develop a process, captured by Professor Bowling’s concept of ‘good enough policing’, through which police and public could agree on standards of fairness and effectiveness acceptable to both.

In 2009-10 the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) appointed Professor Bowling as its sole external advisor to a major project aiming to reform police stop and search. Bowling’s research provided the foundation for the approach taken in the EHRC report Stop and Think (2010) that disproportionality in stop and search was de facto indicative of unlawful racial discrimination.  

The impact of Stop and Think has been wide-ranging and significant. Based on the report’s findings, the EHRC entered into negotiations with five poorly performing police forces, initiating legal enforcement action against two forces using its powers under the Equality Act 2006. Following negotiation with the EHRC, and the implementation of training and development packages based on Stop and Think, all five forces committed to take steps to improve their stop and search practice. Their progress was tracked by the EHRC and reported in its follow up report, Stop and Think Again, which showed that in all police forces targeted by the EHRC, levels of disproportionality fell and the ‘hit-rate’ for stops rose. 

Professor Bowling also co-founded StopWatch, a coalition of researchers, policy-makers, lawyers and young people working for fair and effective policing, which was launched at King’s College London in 2010. StopWatch plays a significant role in informing and shaping public debate using research evidence and working directly with the police to help improve their use of stop and search. It undertakes legal and policy analysis, political advocacy and supports litigation. It drafts fact-sheets and policy briefings, submits evidence to national and international organisations and contributes articles to national newspapers.

In March 2011, the government introduced changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) Code of Practice A allowing police forces discretion to choose whether or not to record ‘stop and account’. Bowling worked with StopWatch to produce a briefing note, based on his research, arguing that the evidence showed that recording was important to inform people why they had been stopped and hold the police to account. This was submitted to the Metropolitan Police Authority consultation and Bowling spoke at the hearing. The consultation concluded that recording was important for fairness, effectiveness, transparency and accountability and overwhelmingly supported by the public. Following this intervention, the Metropolitan Police decided to continue to record stop and account.

Recent months have seen welcome new developments. In July 2013, the Home Secretary launched a public consultation on use of stop and search powers. Reporting on this, the BBC noted that the reduction in stop and search reported by the EHRC had not compromised crime reduction. In April 2014, The Home Secretary announced major reforms of stop and search powers confirming Professor Bowling’s conclusion that many stops are unlawful and that the extent of racial disproportionality is unacceptable. The Home Secretary’s proposals include opening up stop and search records to public scrutiny, improved public accountability and scaling back the use of the powers to ensure their fair and effective use.

Ben Bowling is Associate Dean and Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice in The Dickson Poon School of Law.

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