Inspectors: We have 'no confidence' in Police Scotland stop search data

Written by Alan Robertson on 31 March 2015 in News

HMICS calls for statutory Code of Practice to be considered

Inspectors have no confidence in the stop and search data presented by Police Scotland, a damning report has revealed.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland found there was no definitive guidance for officers and as such no common view among the rank-and-file of what should be recorded as a stop and search.

The inspectorate called for consideration to be given to a statutory Code of Practice to “establish clear principles and safeguards for the public” in relation to stop and search in Scotland.

The Scottish Government has established an independent advisory group to examine the use of stop search powers by Police Scotland following the HMICS review. 

“We do not have confidence in the stop and search data currently held by Police Scotland and believe it should not be used to make informed decisions around the future policy and practice in Scotland until a more consistent approach to recording, supervision and audit is introduced and an accurate baseline established,” said the HMICS report.

The inspectorate argued “robust internal and external governance arrangements” need to be in place to give confidence in the data, though it did not consider it “viable or a good use of limited resources” for Police Scotland to retrospectively improve the data quality of existing records.

If non-statutory stop and search is retained, HMICS called for Police Scotland to put in a place a policy which “raises a general presumption” among officers that stop and search encounters should be legislative, a recommendation that the force has accepted.

It comes after wide disparities were discovered in the use of consensual stop search across Scotland, ranging from one in four of overall searches carried out in Highlands to almost nine in 10 in Ayrshire.

HMICS also found evidence of “varying recording practices and a divergence in opinion” among officers within the same division and in different parts of the country as to what constituted a stop and search and how it should be counted.

Guidance as well as counting rules should be developed to provide clarity and should include "what a search can involve, particularly in relation to turning out pockets or bags, to ensure there is a common understanding among officers", HMICS recommended. 

Police Scotland announced last June that young people aged under 12 would no longer be consensually searched, a policy change they were accused of reneging on after figures emerged showing 356 instances had been recorded in the time since.

The force last month claimed that only 18 consensual searches went against force policy after an audit revealed a range of recording errors.

However, HMICS found the actual number was much higher, with a total of 83 consensual searches of children aged 11 or under running contrary to the policy change between June and December.

The body has called for serious consideration to be given to the creation of a code of practice on a statutory footing, one that would regulate the conduct of a stop search.

Inspectors also found some officers felt under pressure to drive up the number of stop searches, despite Police Scotland senior leadership insisting that no targets for volume stop and search exist.

“While officers state they had no individual targets in relation to stop and search, in some areas supervisors would comment on the team performance and urge officers to be more proactive. Officers translated this as being asked to return more searches,” explained HMICS’ report.

Police Scotland has accepted a recommendation that the only target in place – one for the proportion of searches deemed positive, meaning an item is found – should be removed from their performance framework. It came after officers, supervisors and managers suggested too strong a focus exists within the force on achieving the 20 per cent threshold.

Senior officers have previously warned of a gap in powers to search for alcohol held by young people should non-statutory stop and search be scrapped. However, HMICS has indicated this gap may be smaller than first suggested given the recording of seizures and confiscations of alcohol as a positive stop and search when there is no physical search of an individual.

This arrangement “artificially increases the number of stop and searches recorded”, with HMICS arguing that these should be recorded as legislative seizures instead. Police Scotland said this change would be delivered this summer.

The inspectorate also urged the single force to reverse its recording practice in terms of items found amid concerns the current approach has the “potential to skew public perceptions of local crime and disorder trends”.

As it stands, positive searches are recorded based on the reason for a search rather than what is recovered. In effect, this means a stop search that uncovers drugs but was predicated on suspicion of a weapon would still go down as a positive search for a weapon.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Derek Penman said: “We have recommended a move towards legislative stop and search which, combined with improvements in recording practices, training, supervision and audit, should give communities across Scotland more confidence in the use of stop and search.

“We believe the development of a statutory Code of Practice would establish clearly understood principles and safeguards for the public and would be particularly beneficial in providing clear and transparent guidance on the conduct of searches."

Police Scotland deputy chief constable Rose Fitzpatrick said: "We acknowledge and will implement in full the recommendations made by HMICS today, many of which are entirely consistent with the proposals made by the Chief Constable in his report to the Cabinet Secretary.” 

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