Police powers to stop and search are very much subject to public scrutiny. Newspapers and social media suggest they are not exercised impartially, but target ethnic minorities. Home Office figures released last year confirmed black people were six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, which appeared to confirm allegations of racist bias.
On 8 August 2017, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, told the BBC there had been a 20 per cent increase in stabbings and knifepoint crime. However, accusations of police racism for disproportionately focussing on young black men meant that some officers had lost confidence in using their powers. In the last five years, the number of stops and searches had reduced by 60 per cent.
The Commissioner wants her officers to use their powers, and to use them confidently. She says: “It’s an important power, it’s useful to use, it’s very helpful in all sorts of ways.” She explained that police find “something you shouldn’t have” in one out of three stops and searches and this showed the police were not simply conducting “random work”. The one out of three statistic applies to stops carried out on people of colour, as well as people not of colour.
Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 is the most controversial power as there is no requirement for an individual officer to have reasonable grounds for suspicion to stop and search someone. The power depends on whether an authorisation is in force in a particular area.
Where an authorisation is in force, section 60(4) empowers a police officer to stop any pedestrian and search them or anything they are carrying for offensive weapons or dangerous instruments. Similarly, a police officer may stop and search a vehicle, its driver and any passengers for offensive weapons and dangerous instruments.
Section 16 (5) of the 1994 Act leaves no room for doubt:
A constable may, in the exercise of the powers conferred by subsection (4) above, stop any person or vehicle and make any search he thinks fit whether or not he has any grounds for suspecting that the person or vehicle is carrying weapons or articles of that kind.
Authorisations are given by inspectors or more senior officers for up to 24 hours to look for offensive weapons or dangerous instruments in areas where
there have been incidents of serious violence, or where
such an incident may take place, or where
people are carrying offensive weapons or dangerous instruments for no good reason.
The grant of authorisations is subject to reasonable belief and the validity of the authorisation is often key in a civil action against the police. The authorisation must contain the reasons why it was granted. If the grounds are not objectively justifiable, all stops and searches carried out under the authorisation are likely to be unlawful. If the authorisation is defective in any technical procedural way, the legality of stop and searches carried out may be open to challenge.