A critical evaluation of the use of “stop and search” by the police

Categories: Criminology

A critical evaluation of the use of “stop and search” by the police


       Police officers have a fundamental function to maintain law and order in the society (Smith, G. 2001: 372). They deal with crimes and arrest offenders. They are supposed to be vigilant all the time and monitoring any potential criminal activity and prevent its occurrence where possible. According toHess, K. M., &Wrobleski, H. M. (2006: 57), they do this by taking part in community patrols and responding to emergency calls. As the complexity of civilization is increasing, so is the level of crimes (Nick, et al.

, 2000: 7). This makes the role of the police officers even more challenging. In order to realize their objectives, police officers should make sure that they create and maintain a good relationship with the general public. This is because the potential criminals are in the community and information regarding them is also within the community. Again, any successful policing operation must be done within the stipulated regulations by the state.

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Otherwise, any operation done outside the guidelines is deemed unlawful (Hagan, F. E. 2008: 89). It is also of greatest importance for the police officers to uphold the principle of transparency, consensus, legitimacy and accountability when carrying out their operations (Nick, et al., 2000: 8). The use of the “stop and search” by the police is under section one of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984) (Ozin, P. & Spivey, P. 2006: 28). This section gives police officers powers to stop any individual or vehicle in the public place and conduct a search on the basis of suspicion.

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This operation has its successes and its shortcomings. The aim of this paper is to critically put into perspective the place of this policing operation in the society.

       The Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984) has given police officers power to detain offenders, to stop and search people and vehicles in connection with offences whether actual or suspected, to arrest without warrant for minor offences and to control the behavior of persons in public places (Hagan, F. E. 2008.: 28). With regard to the power to stop and search a person or a vehicle, the aim is to search for evidence to support the suspicion leveled against the person. According to Hagan, F. E. (2008: 30), stop and search is done where there is suspicion of possessing stolen goods, firearms, illegal fireworks, articles suspected to be for use in committing a criminal act such as theft, fraud or burglary among others. In carrying out such an operation on an individual, clear and reasonable suspicion should exist to avoid subjecting innocent people to embarrassments and anxiety. This is categorically contained in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984) section one (Bevan, V., &Lidstone, K. W.1985: 29). Police officers are supposed to be guided by the provisions in the Act (Great Britain. Home Office, 2012: 17). However, this is far from the truth. Critical look at the stop and search operations reveal that though somehow helpful in controlling criminal activities, it has pitfalls that need proper considerations.

       Discretion has been recognized as one of the key elements in a good policing operation (Norris, C., et al., 1992: 113; Nick et al., 2000: 21). However, discretion as far as police stop and search practices are concerned has been questioned. First and foremost, let us look at the issue of the legitimacy in the stop and search policing. There are three fundamental questions that we need to ask ourselves with regard to legitimacy of this policing. First, we need to ask ourselves how do police officers decide who to stop and search? Secondly, which factors prompt the police officers to carry out stops and searches of the public? Finally, which factors form the basis for the reasonable suspicion that underpin the stop and search on a particular individual? Police officers have been accused of conducting stop and search operations discriminatorily (Browling, B. & Philips, C., 2007: 965). In Whales and England, it has been reported that whenever there is an alarm and need to carry out a public stop and search operation, a black person is seven times more likely to be searched than a white person. If this is the case then, the police officers make the operation illegitimate in terms of its effectiveness (Miller, J. 2000: 21). The blacks, regardless of whether they are law-abiding and innocent or otherwise, feel vulnerable and alienated. Miller, J. (2000: 21-23) argues that awhite person who is a potential criminal may survive detection simply because the level of reasonable suspicion on him or her is low compared to that attached to the black counterpart. It is imperative to mention that according to the labeling theory of criminology, constant application of stigmatizing label on the blacks may stimulate the deviant behavior in otherwise law-abiding people (Hagan, E., 2008: 116-118).

       The power in the Act stipulates that before a stop and search is done, a police officer should have reasonable suspicion on the suspect (Nick et al., 2000: 4-6). Based on the ambiguity of the reasonable suspicion, it is expected that the interpretation of this requirements will vary from one police officer to another. It has been established through research that this is actually true. Suspicion is rooted in the culture of the police and resistant to change from external influences (Norris, C., et al., 1992: 189). Therefore, following the requirements of the Act as to how to develop suspicion is not easy. Often, police officers develop suspicion against people based on the generalizations. They use a person’s age, appearance, behavior and location as the landmarks (Delsol, R. 2006: 48). This generalization forms the roots for alienating some members of the public. They assume that young men are the prime suspects for any criminal activity. As already mentioned, it becomes even worse if you are a black and living in poor parts of the region in Whales and England (Nick, et al. 2000: 6). Here, we again ask; does being young increase your chances of committing a crime? No. Being young is not a motivating factor! Do black people become potential criminals simply because they are black? No. This notion has been perpetuated by the racist attitude that generally plagues the world. In the same manner, being poor or living in a poor estate does not make one qualify to be a potential criminal. It is not a motivating factor on its own. Therefore, police officers’ ways of developing the theme of reasonable suspicion require proper understanding. Clarification has to be made in the Act as to whether, and to what extent is stop and search policing is acceptable (Nick, et al., 2000 26). In view of this, reasonable suspicion for stop and search encounters can be obtained from the following: if the person fits the description given of the suspect, if the person behaves suspiciously, if the person is out at unusual time like at night or if the person is found in a place associated with the crime(Stone, V., & Pettigrew, N. 2000: 142).

       Though stipulated in a legal frame, public stops and searches have been carried out in an unlawful manner. Persons have been subjected to embarrassing searches in public (Evans, J. M. 1990: 54). Sometimes, false information has been planted on the suspect in order to have him or her charged and prosecuted illegally (Nick et a., 2000: 29). Often, when police officers are on patrol at the scene of crime, efforts are made to incriminate someone. In such circumstances, an innocent person suffers unlawfully in the hands of the police officers who are supposed to safeguard the rights of such a person. As already mentioned, stops and searches operations are carried out disproportionately. This is evidenced by the statics obtained in Whales and England (Browling, B., & Philips, C. 2007: 154). Racism and ethnicity is rife in these operations. According to Browling, B & Philips, C (2007: 154), shocking statistics show that a black is seven times likely to be stopped and searched than a white. An Asian is twice likely to be stopped and searched that a white counterpart. The bitter truth is that the same trend as persisted despite numerous debates to change it.It has been established through studies by FitzGerald (1999: 42) that calls from the public had contribution in the disproportionality observed in the stop and searches. Bias in the suspect description can also be responsible for disproportionate stops and searches according to Browling, B., & Philips, C. (2007: 157). He argues that most descriptions made in incidences of robbery suit members of the minority communities. However, this is a much disputed view because it borders on ethnicity. This view notwithstanding though, police officers do not use description information given but use race to suspect an offender. This is typical ethnicity in policing. It often damages the relations within and between communities. It is important to note that if the policing is perceived unfair, then its legitimacy will be greatly undermined and co-operation of the public with the police and willingness to obey the law will be decreased (Terris, B. J. 1997: 93).

       Public confidence is indispensable in determining the success and legitimacy of stops and searches. It is built upon the trust that stops and searches are used fairly and effectively. This is the center of the principle of policing by consent. It encourages the public to co-operate with and give assistance to the police. According to Janet, B & Chan, L (1999: 13), if police treated people including offenders with respect in order to reduce fear, then the level of co-operation between them and the community would improve. As already stated, one of the things that make the operation legitimate in the eyes of the public is the police decision on who to stop. Stone and Pettigrew (2000) suggest that police officers should only stop people for genuine and good reasons. In addition, they should not target those that they feel like but target the “real criminals”. Public stops and searches that are deemed inappropriate because they are based on negative stereotyping constitute harassment.

       The manner in which public stops and searches are carried is also of great concern. It is required that a police officer should introduce himself or herself to the suspect and clearly state the reason for stopping the individual (Nick et al., 2000: 29). According to Nick et al (2000 29) when a search is necessary, the person should be frisked in a dignified manner. If necessary, the person can only be asked to remove the outer clothes only such as a coat. If an in-depth search is necessary where the person may be asked to remove all his or her clothes, then the person has to be taken to police custody and search be conducted in privacy. For such kind of a search, a police officer of the same gender as the suspect will be involved.This constitutes respect to the person upon whom the search is done. The results of the search should also be communicated to the person accurately and as soon as possible to alleviate excessive anxiety (Zander, M. 1985: 27). In all this process, a police officer must remain polite even when the situation appears difficult to handle. If this simple requirement is not followed, the public lose confidence in the stop and search policing operation. Distrust usually follows and finally, co-operation is lost between the police officers and the members of the public (Nick et al 2000: 32).

       It is important to look at some of the possible sources of suspicion. One of the factors that give indirect information about a suspect is age. As already mentioned above, police officers are greatly prompted to stop young people because they are associated with “causing trouble” generally (Nick, et al., 2000: 19). Furthermore, it is more likely that youths found on the road very early in the morning, whether walking or driving, will be stopped and searched. In addition, youths found driving out of the city at night got stopped on the suspicion that the driver might be drunk (Nick, et al., 2000: 20). It becomes even worse if the youths are found in groups. This focus on young people with regard to stop and searches has been recognized by Stone and Pettigrew (2000: 187). This generalization is not appropriate because there is nothing that links a young person directly to being a criminal. Unless police officers apply the provisions in the Act that stipulate that age should not be used as a basis to develop suspicion, the problem is inclined to prevail.

       Moreover, how a person is dressed has been a prompting factor to conduct a stop and search by the police officers. Nick, et al (2000: 20) mention that people found in dark clothes at night were deemed to be potential candidates to commit a criminal act. They were thus liable to stop and search operations by the police officers. Does this then mean that people should not wear dark clothes at night? According to the police officers, those who wear dark clothes at night do so in an attempt to conceal their identity. They also argue that such people do so to make it hard to notice them at night. Accordingly, they assume that such people could be out to commit a crime or have already committed one and therefore trying to escape. Others styles of adornment have also been labeled as suspicious. According to Stone and Pettigrew, (2000: 187), white people on skinhead hairstyle and blacks on dreadlocks got stopped and searched frequently. This is because such styles are associated with criminals. However, this is again based on generalization and should not form basis for developing reasonable suspicion on a suspect according to the PACE Act.

       The type of the car driven also sometimes gave grounds for suspicion. Police officers report being prompted to stop old cars because they suspected a possibility of it having defects or lacking insurance or road tax (Nick, et al., 2000: 21-22). In addition, high-powered cars were targeted because they were likely to be stolen. In their opinion, police officers classify cars that are less likely to be stolen and those that are most susceptible to theft. Furthermore, high-class cars are suspected to be ferrying illegal items. This is based on the assumption that criminal are tempted to use flashy cars to lower their probability of being nabbed by police. In addition, car thieves steal high-class cars more often than their low-class counterparts. But based on these assumptions, the police officers run a risk of stopping and searching the innocent. This becomes a big problem if one will be subjected to constant stops and searches because of the model of their car. According to Nick et al. (2000: 22), blacks or Asian people who possessed expensive cars would be stopped a lot more compared to the whites. By extension, some people had been forced to change the model of their cars in an attempt to avoid constant harassments from the police officers. The result of this generalized operationpropagated negative stereotyping on the minority ethnic groups. It meant that these people from minority groups did not hold good jobs and therefore could not afford expensive cars. This generates resentment and bad relationship between the public and the police officers.

       Police officers often did congruency assessment on the individual in an attempt to establish and develop reasonable suspicion on the suspect (Webber, L. 2013: 47). They compared the driver of the vehicle and the class of that vehicle. If no congruency existed in their own opinion, the driver would be suspected to be a thief. If this driver is actually the owner of this vehicle, it goes without saying that he or she will feel offended to the extreme. This also could happen if a person was found in a place that does not suit him or her. For instance, police officers report developing suspicion on a person found in a school compound and not dressed like a student (Nick, et al., 2000: 24). This usually happens because police officers have learnt to associate certain places with certain people. They have assumed that there are places that are exclusively for the whites and others for the blacks. This means that if a person of the white ethnic group is found in some areas where blacks are predominant, the first instinct to the police officers is that such a person is doing illegal drug business. Similarly, if a black person is found around premises that are known to belong exclusively to whites, the instinct of the police officers would take such a person as a suspect intending to steal. This assumption is wrong because it promotes ethnicity and alienating to a large degree according to Nick et al (2000: 34).

       Police officers also rely on suspicious activities to develop suspicion on an individual (Weitzer, R., &Tuch, S. A. 2004: 59). The argument is that such behavior like checking locks or looking inside cars are suspicious activities. People hanging or loitering around got stopped and questioned frequently on their intentions (Nick, et al., 2000: 25). At a hotspot of crime, these observations can be relied upon as sources of reasonable suspicion. But one may ask; what constitutes a suspicious activity in driving? Perhaps a police officer may observe the manner in which the vehicle is driven aimlessly. Also, speeding the car at the sight of police officers may suggest a criminal intent. This can be a reliable source of suspicion too. Also, taking unusual routes may suggest something sinister such as avoiding a police stop and search operation. In addition, cars that are parked in secluded places generate suspicion. A police officer may be prompted to carry out a search on such a situation.

       Moreover, police officers are often prompted to stop a person on the grounds of furtive behavior (Nick, et al., 2000: 39). Furtive behavior is described as avoiding being seen, attempting to hide an object, trying to run away or feeling nervous in the presence of police officers. These elusive forms of behavior can arguably be grounds to develop reasonable suspicion. To some degree, a police officer will be right in interpreting them to suit his or her opinions. For instance, a suspect would try as much as possible to avoid being seen. In the same way, if someone is in possession of an object that is illegal, stolen or intended for committing a crime, then he or she will try to hide it. In addition, a person will try to run away from police officers if he or she knows that they have done something that can lead to their arrest. Again, police officers tend to assume that one would be nervous in their presence if he or she is guilty. This is how police officers may want to justify using furtive behavior to develop suspicion on a person.

       However, there is a limitation to using furtive behavior as a ground to develop suspicion (Williams, B. N., &Stah, M.2008: 73). This is because furtive behavior may be culturally or socially motivated sometimes. For instance, culture may dictate when and to what extent is making an eye contact appropriate. Feeling uneasy in the presence of police officers can happen even when the person feels that there is nothing to hide. This is associated with the fear of being stopped or searched (Stone and Pettigrew, 2000: 192). A person may opt to run away instead of being subjected to police search even when there is no reasonable ground to fear. By extension, some fear being incriminated falsely by police.

       In the study done by Nick, et al., (2000: 24), it was established that police officers usually targeted the person that they already knew. On receiving the suspect description, most police officers attach it to a prolific offender who is the current target of the police surveillance. Furthermore, according to the Stone and Pettigrew (2000: 188), police officers targeted persons who had a criminal record in the past. This is actually against the provisions in the PACE Act that clearly states that a person cannot be suspected because of their past history. Some people have also reported having been stopped and questioned simply because they were found walking with a person known to the police. This is offending to say the least. If a person is suspected to be a criminal just because he or she has been involved in criminal activity in the past without reasonable suspicion is tantamount to police harassment. It also makes a reformed criminal to constantly feel guilty and develop tactics to survive in such an environment. Some may become hostile while others may revert to committing crimes (Smith, G., 2009: 253). They will take it that the society does not trust in them anymore and that they are unwanted. As a result, a bigger problem result thanks to the unreasonable police officers.

       Time and place also often formed the basis for the police officers to develop suspicion on an individual. Findinga person at a particular place and at a particular time of the day may give police officers a basis to suspect that person (Evans, J. M., 1990: 439). For instance, if a person is found at the site of crime at night, the first impression that the police officer on patrol gets is that the person might have been involved in the committing of the crime. Again, if a person is found in a car in an isolated place at night, then that becomes the basis of developing a reasonable suspicion to stop and search such a person. However, it is not obvious that if someone is found ina certain place and at a particular time he or she is up to some criminal activity. Stone and Pettigrew (2000: 162) give an accountof the sufferings of the blacks and Asians in England who worked in fast food outlets, minicab drivers, shift workers at factories or as postmen. Their work required them to walk or drive at night occasionally. On such occasions, they often got stopped and searched to the disappointments of the officers because they never found anything suspicious with them. This is to overrule the notion that being found on the road at unusual time does not necessarily mean you are a suspect.

       Police officers also rely on the descriptive information given by a victim or witness about the suspect. This information should be as accurate as possible (Webber, L., 2013: 78). It helps the police officers have a general idea on who to stop and search and who not to. However, this does not always happen because the information given may not be reliable. The caller may not be able to give a correct description of the suspect. In addition, the person receiving the information may record incomplete information that does not help much. In such instances, police officers are left to use their method of generalizing (Nick et al., 2000: 32).

       In addition, intelligence information is usually given to the police officers on the ground by the intelligence agency (Gelman, A., et al., 2007: 815). The information is meant to assist them to make rational decisions and know where and when to do intensive stop and search operations. The information given to the police officers should be accurate and clear to assist in the operations. The intelligence information may be on the types of crimes that are predominant in a particular place, the crime hotspots, both seasonal and long-term as well as the information regarding the well-known criminals (Miller, J., 2000: 49). Intelligence information can greatly influence how the police officers carry out their patrols because they tend to direct most of their effort towards hotspots (Nick et al., 2000: 34). But it is not surprising that most police officers tend to use generalization and stereotypes to make stops and searches instead of relying on the given intelligence information.

       In conclusion, stop and search policing is an effective policing technique used by police if done in accordance with the provided regulations. Some of the issues that arise in the practice of stop and searching in the policing service need evaluation. The most important of all is the issue of discrimination and disproportionality in these stops and searches. As we have seen, this often leads to poor relationship within the community. People lack trust and confidence in the police services. Some people feel vulnerable when they are subjected to unlawful stops and searches. According to Weitzer, R. and Tuch, S. (2004: 321), police unit should find the most suitable way to conduct stops and searches in a manner that yield many positive results and minimize negative result.


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Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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A critical evaluation of the use of “stop and search” by the police. (2015, Nov 26). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-critical-evaluation-of-the-use-of-stop-and-search-by-the-police-essay

A critical evaluation of the use of “stop and search” by the police essay
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