Stop and search debate shows no end

Written by Alan Robertson on 10 February 2015 in Comment

Powers to search for alcohol key in discussion over place of non-statutory

Another day, another debate over the use of stop and search after rank-and-file officers hit out at politicians and Police Scotland. It’s unlikely controversy, especially around non-statutory stop and search, will abate any time soon with the Scottish Police Authority – which itself has come in for much criticism - set to hold a special board meeting later this week.

Last week’s announcement that Police Scotland are considering ending the practice of consensual stop and search, as reported here by Holyrood, is not a straightforward scrapping – it’s a swap. ‘A range of alternative measures are to be considered to replace the current policing tactic of consensual stop and search,’ the press release issued by the single force stated. The term ‘appropriate legislative powers’ was used twice in the space of three paragraphs worth of quotes from deputy chief constable for local policing Rose Fitzpatrick, while explicit reference is made to alcohol searches. 

Now as it stands, officers do have powers under legislation to seize alcohol in certain circumstances, though there is no statutory search power for alcohol. Given that, as the SPA’s review of the tactic published last May found, the majority of searches are for alcohol and the majority of detections are for alcohol (12 times the recovery rate for weapons), taking away consensual stop searches without some sort of compensation is not an idea Police Scotland appear keen to entertain. “There is a bit of a gap in that we can seize alcohol that's open, there is legislative power to do that, but alcohol in a bag, on the ground, it is a bit of a loophole so we are reliant upon consensual searching for that,” assistant chief constable Wayne Mawson told Holyrood last year. I would suggest then that the message is simple: give us the power under legislation to search for alcohol and we’ll do away with non-statutory use of the tactic.

For me, though, a report on stop search to be published by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland next month is likely to add an extra dimension. Inspector of Constabulary Derek Penman has expressed doubts in the past over the accuracy of figures for non-statutory stop search, driven, he suggested, by a misunderstanding among officers of the legislative framework. A statement issued by HMICS last week said the review “will make recommendations in relation to recording of alcohol seizures and alternatives to the use of consensual stop and search”. 

I’d anticipate then that Penman’s views have been borne out and, if so, better training for officers around use of existing legislative powers as well as recording practices will likely be called for. Following that logic, doing so would bring down the number of consensual searches quite significantly and allow for a more informed assessment of where legislative gaps actually exist. That process, of course, could take some time and whether MSPs will be willing to wait in light of this week’s proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill calling for consensual searching to be outlawed is an entirely different question altogether.

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