13:37, November 11 89 0 theguardian.com

2018-11-11 13:37:26
Police in talks to scrap 'reasonable grounds' condition for stop and search

Police chiefs want to trigger an expansion of stop and search by lowering the level of suspicion an officer needs against a suspect to use the controversial power, the Guardian has learned.

They want to scrap the requirement that “reasonable grounds” are needed before a person can be subjected to a search, amid mounting concern over knife attacks.

Senior officers have held talks with advisers to the home secretary, Sajid Javid, within the last fortnight to discuss the issue.

The measure will fuel the debate about police discrimination against ethnic minority communities, civil liberties and the role stop and search has to play in tackling violent crime.

The plans were confirmed by Adrian Hanstock – deputy chief constable of the British Transport Police and national lead on stop and search for the National Police Chiefs Council.

The plans would also make it more likely that those caught with a knife could be dealt with by an education programme, the so called public health approach, rather than ending up before the courts.

Hanstock told the Guardian: “There are a lot of calls for officers to do more stop and search. But the current individual threshold that officers have to meet is very tight and precise.

“So is there any appetite to reduce that threshold where [an] officer has a genuine fear that the person is at risk, or there is a safeguarding threat, or is a risk to others?

“If that officer does not have sufficient grounds or X-ray vision to see they are carrying a weapon, and they are concerned they may have something to cause harm, that should trigger a search.

“They will still have to record what has concerned them.”

Hanstock accepted the plans are controversial. It comes amid rising concerns about a spate of knife killings, especially in London, and calls from some to use stop and search more often in a hope it would quell the violence.

Stop and search is about the most controversial power police use on a daily basis, because black people are around nine times more likely to be targeted for its use than white people, by a police force that remains disproportionately white.

The vast majority of those stopped turn out to be innocent and Theresa May, while home secretary, was concerned it eroded the trust ethnic minorities have in the police and Britain as a fair society.

Hanstock said the new proposed stop and search laws could fit better with a fresh approach to violent crime where it is treated as a public health issue, and not one solely for the criminal justice system. “The outcome of a positive search, does not have to be a criminal justice solution. What’s the alternative, it could be a health or welfare approach.”

Hanstock said there was a difference between someone stopped with a knife who has a record of violent offending and a 13-year-old with knife who suffers from bullying: “This is the daily dilemma our teams have to deal with,” he said

“The police mindset is on finding evidence and criminality. The questions is, what if the police mindset was more about safeguarding people from harm.”

The current law governing stop and search is contained in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace) of 1984 which says an officer requires “reasonable grounds for suspecting” someone before they can use their powers.

Hanstock said the law was out of date: “When Pace was enacted in 1984, it was built on 1970s thinking. The factors that motivate violence today are not a look across the dancefloor or spilling someone’s pint, they are online and generating feuds online.

“Now the trigger points that cause violence are not in the street, they are in internet chat rooms and in online communities. That is where the feuds are incubated. Then the individuals come together physically.”

London mayor Sadiq Khan last week said it could take a decade to tackle the root causes of knife and violent crime, which has claimed 119 lives this year in the capital. Hanstock said: “It’s about what breaks the cycle … How can we be more agile now if we want to do something different.”

He accepted the plans would trigger controversy: “I think it would raise concerns with civil liberties groups that we could be using this as an excuse to search more people.”

The Pace laws were designed to stop baseless searches by officers such as those under the “sus” laws – from the “suspected person” section of the Vagrancy Act 1824 – which critics said were used to harass innocent black people.

Katrina Ffrench of Stopwatch, which campaigns against misuse of the power, said: “The evidence indicates that reasonable suspicion already fails to provide a sufficiently robust safeguard against misuse, so it is deeply concerning that the police are considering weakening it further.

“It should not be accepted that police can just make up a different standard to suit themselves. This kind of power would be too wide and open to abuse.

“Any lowering of the threshold … would be a step backwards and could encourage abuse of the power.

“We are are seriously concerned about the implications of introducing suspicious-less searches on the legitimacy of policing by consent and the relationship between impacted communities and the police.”

If the government backed the plans it would be a U-turn from May’s government . While home secretary she considered legislating to curb stop and search powers amid concerns over police misuse, with one official report finding 25% of stops could be unlawful. As home secretary in 2014 she told MPs: “Nobody wins when stop and search is misapplied. It is a waste of police time. It is unfair, especially to young, black men. It is bad for public confidence in the police.”

Since he became home secretary, Javid has made it clear he does not share the reservations about stop and search.

Amid rising violent crime Javid has portrayed himself as the champion of stop and search and used a newspaper interview on Friday to say: “I want to make sure it is easier for police to be able to use it and reduce the bureaucracy around it.” He told the Police Federation in May: “I have confidence in your professional judgement. So let me be clear, I support the use of stop and search.”

Hanstock welcomed the change in tone about stop and search from Javid, who became home secretary in May: “The government are signalling we have seen police are taking it seriously, now use your powers in a proper way, and you have our support.”

Its use dropped under pressure from the government but has increased in recent months in London with police saying it is now more targeted and intelligence led.

Topics