This is the first of a series of posts over the next few days in which Ill be dismantling the Tory’s ‘mini manifesto’ on Law and Order, piece by piece, starting with its specific proposals and then finishing up with the proposed ‘Social Covenant’.
So lets kick things off with Cam’s plans for the future of Police stop and search powers.
1.1 Abolish the stop form.
It is right that when a police officer decides to search an individual, the incident should be recorded: this is an invasive power which must not be used casually or excessively.
However, officers are currently required to make a record – on a 40-question form a foot long – every time they stop someone in the street. The time and effort involved is bad enough.
The real problem is the way in which bureaucracy stops the neighbourhood police officer from building the individual relationships which are vital to effective policing.
A Conservative Government will scrap the stop form and allow officers to stop and question an individual without making a written record.
Police are NOT required to complete a ‘stop form’ every time the stop someone in the street; it all depends on why they’re stopping them – if its to engage in a general conversation, ask for directions or because they’re looking for witnesses to an incident, then there’s no form-filling to be done at all. Its only when an officer questions the individual they’ve stopped about their actions, behaviour, presence in a particular area or possession of particular items that the form-filling begins because, while stopping and questioning someone in the street may not be an invasive power, like carrying out a search, it is an intrusive one, and that could be misused in such a way as to constitute harassment.
So, in reality, it does serve a useful purpose, not only in terms of providing a means of monitoring the use of such powers by the police but also because – and this is a point that’s routinely ignored – by keeping a basic record of who they’re questioning, when and in what circumstances/grounds, police officers not only have evidence to justify their actions if a complaint of harassment is levelled against them by a member of the public but also because, the information recorded on a stop form could provide evidence for use at a later stage.
Suppose, for example, a beat officer questions a youth who they see hanging around in a particular area in a manner they consider to be a tad suspicious and carry out a routine stop. A few hours later, a householder in that same area returns from work to find that they’ve been burgled and reports this to the police – if the police haven’t recorded the stop earlier in the day then while the officer might recall questioning a youth who seemed a bit iffy, all they will have to go on in terms of information this , by now, possible suspect is whatever they can recall about the encounter where, if the stop is recorded, they’ll have a name and address (which could be false, admittedly), a description of the youth taken at the time of the stop and also an explanation of their presence in the area which can be checked out to see if they were on the level or had lied about why they were there. The latter would, of course, suggest that its worth making further inquiries into this youth’s activities.
Used correctly, and with the amount of information that has to be recorded kept to a minimum, there is some utility in recording stops in addition to searches.
What the Tories want people to believe is that stop form are a deeply onerous and wasteful imposition on police time and resources, hence the reference to these forms having ’40 questions’ and being ‘a foot long’.
In reality, a stop form is sheet of A4 paper on which the officer carrying out the stop/search records:
a. Basic identification information about the person they’ve questioned, which means name and address, gender, date of birth, ethnicity (as it appears to the officer and as the individual self-identifies – and before anyone tries the ‘it’s political correctness’ line, this information does form part of the routine manner in which the police record physical descriptions of suspects), height, a brief physical description and whether they are a resident, visitor or student.
b. If a vehicle is searched, the officer records its make, model, colour and registration number and whether only the vehicle was search and whether it was ‘attended’ (had someone with it) at the time of the search.
c. The object, reason or grounds for the search.
d. The time, date and location of the stop – and duration if a search is carried out.
e. The results of any search carried out, and finally,
f. The identity of the officer carrying out the stop/search.
All this fits on a single side of A4, two of the six sections only need to be completed if a search is carried out and depending on whether you take things like recording the date, time and location of a stop/search as one question or three separate questions, the actual number of questions on the form is either 22 or 28 – you get to 40 only if you start counting individual tick boxes, which make up much of the form, as separate questions rather than options for answering a single question.
That’s what’s on a police stop form – or at least what’s on the form in use by Dorset Police, which you can see here – stopform.pdf
You’ll note from the file that the form has two pages, the second of which is for the officer to record their view of the stop/search and any additional information they think may prove useful and which looks to ask for nothing more than the kind of information that the police would routine record in their pocket books.
As for the Tory’s claim that its the bureaucracy that stops neighbourhood police officers building individual relationships on their patch, one suspects that what people, particularly young people, tend to resent is the actual business of being stopped in the street and questioned by the police and that the form-filling part of the exercise is no more than very minor inconvenience on top.
Stop forms, like that in use by Dorset Police, are not especially time-consuming as long as the person who’s been stopped is reasonably cooperative in answering questions, no more so than taking a few notes in a pocket book, and getting rid of them offers no real benefits and several potential drawbacks. All that’s needed is to use them sensibly and with a bit of good judgement is discriminating between having a conversation with someone in the street and questioning them about their activities.
The proposal is largely meaningless gesture and, one suspects, has rather more to do with these forms having been introduced as a result a recommendation in the MacPherson report in the police’s handling of the Stephen Laurence case than on their getting in the way of effective police work.
Not content with unnecessarily scrapping stop forms, the Tories next wheeze is:
1.2 Extend stop and search
The abolition of the stop form must be part of a wider effort to empower the local beat officer. Constables know their neighbourhoods best; they should be trusted to make decisions about the proper policing of their patch.
The over-riding imperative is for the police to stamp out the possession of illegal guns and other offensive weapons. Under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, if an officer of inspector rank or above has a reasonable belief that a person is carrying an offensive weapon, he or she may authorise officers to stop and search people and vehicles, within a specified locality and for up to 48 hours. This power may be exercised without the requirement of reasonable suspicion that would otherwise be needed under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
Before the summer recess the House of Lords voted in favour of an amendment to allow police constables who have reasonable grounds to suspect a person or persons of carrying firearms to order on their own authority an area within their beat to be sealed off and people and vehicles to be searched.
The Government subsequently ordered this amendment to be struck out in the House of Commons.
We support the principle that the fight against guns and knives requires a more responsive arrangement. In the light of the Lords vote, a Conservative Government will urgently review the power of stop and search.
The Review will examine what restrictions would be needed to prevent excessive use of this power – including the requirements that the area to be searched is precisely defined and that the period of the search must not last more than 48 hours.
Now it strikes me that if Constables should be trusted to make judgements about when and where to call on this set of stop and search powers then, for starters, the kind of person who will be best placed to display that trust is likely to be one of his superiors.
So, right, from the outset this seems something of a questionable idea – what’s the practical difference between a Constable authorising the use of these powers and one calling up an Inspector and getting them to do it for them?
In terms of the end result, not much.
However, there are a couple of points that do need to be considered here.
First, given that there is a requirement, even under the Tory’s plan, that the search area should be precisely and properly defined, it seems likely that this will involve at least some measure of form-filling, the responsibility for which would pass, under these proposals, from an Inspector based at the local police station to the officer in the field, all of which runs contrary to the idea that what we need is coppers on the beat and not doing paperwork in the office.
One also has to look at this in terms of the bigger picture of policing.
This kind of localised ‘sweep’ of an area may be just what a constable thinks his patch needs only to find, later, that by conducting his little local crackdown he’s managed to stuff up a surveillance operation that CID have had running on his patch for several weeks by scaring off the people they’ve been watching and we’re planning to move on.
These kinds of sweeps need to planned carefully and with due regard to other lines of police activity that may be taking place in the same area – there may easily operational considerations relating to ongoing investigations of which a Constable may be entirely unaware, or about which they possess only the most basic knowledge of information, that looked in the full context of the operational priorities at work in an area would clearly militate against a stop and search sweep, matters in which the neighbourhood officer is singularly ill-placed to make these kinds of judgements.
In purely operation terms, it makes much more sense that the decision to institute this kind of sweep should be pushed upstairs for a decision, to a level where the individual with decision-making authority does have, or is able to obtain, a clear overview of all the police activity in the area and take a view as to whether the planned sweep might unduly interfere with other important operations. This seems particularly important when the emphasis is being placed by the Tories on the use of such powers to chase down people in possession of illegal firearms and could, therefore, potentially bring this kind of local sweep into conflict with an ongoing anti-terrorism investigation/operation or one that’s targeting individuals involved in organised crime and/or drug trafficking.
Given such considerations, while a government could certain pass a law permitting a Police Constable to exercise these powers on his/her own authority, in practice it is extremely unlikely that the Police would permit the use of this authority without the Constable having first obtained authorisation from a senior officer who understands the bigger picture, rendering the legislative changes entirely meaningless.
This is, quite literally, a nothing policy – one that in practice will not make the slightest alteration to the way in which the police functions and how it authorises the use of these kinds of powers, simply because no matter what the law allows, operational priorities and imperatives will take precedence.
The current government has been accused, often enough, of passing legislation for legislations sake, which would be a charitable way of describing this proposal. A better description, however, might to say that this looks for all the world to be no more than legislation for appearances sake, and a complete waste of time and energy.