On Monday (14 September) the Government opened a consultation proposing a new order to help prevent knife crime. It comes in the form of Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVRO), which would effectively be a new stop and search power for police aimed specifically at previous offenders.
This Insight looks at the proposal and how people from Black ethnic groups may be more affected.
What is the Government proposing?
An SVRO would be a new type of order that courts in England and Wales could apply to certain people convicted of violent offences. The proposal is designed to meet the Conservative’s 2019 manifesto pledge to make it “easier for officers to stop and search those convicted of knife crime.”
The Government considered amending existing stop and search powers but concluded it “would not be possible” to meet the pledge by doing so. Therefore, SVROs are the proposed solution.
The consultation says offenders issued with a SVRO would be “more likely to be stopped by the police and searched.” The Government hasn’t decided exactly how SVROs will work in practice (that’s something they are consulting on), but it seems the police would be able to search those with SVROs without “reasonable grounds”.
The Government is proposing those searched using the SVRO power and found with a weapon should receive a prison sentence under the ‘two strikes’ rule. The Government is also exploring the possibility of making it an offence to fail to cooperate with a search whilst subject to an SVRO.
How do stop and search powers work now?
The police normally require “reasonable grounds” to search people for weapons. This prevents them searching people without good reason.
Officers have reasonable grounds when they have a “genuine suspicion” they will find the object they are searching for. This suspicion must be based on “objective factors.”
An officer would have reasonable grounds to search someone who matched the description of a suspect in a recent knife attack or someone they saw hiding a knife. Officers wouldn’t have grounds to search someone they judged to look like the sort of person who carries a knife.
Presently police can’t search people on the basis they have a relevant offending history alone. This is supposed to prevent officers from prejudicing people with previous convictions. That doesn’t mean officers can’t search people with previous offences. Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick claims her officers are already targeting “habitual knife carriers” using existing stop and search powers.
Why are “reasonable grounds” important?
According to the College of Policing (the body responsible for professional standards in policing), the “reasonable grounds” test is “key to fair decision making in stop and search.” Members of the public are less likely to feel unfairly treated by the police when they are given a clear objective reason for being searched.
Under existing stop and search powers it is unlawful for officers to search people without reasonable grounds or prior authorisation. They must make a record of the grounds for every search and these records are subject to internal police scrutiny.
Stop and search is under such scrutiny in part because year-on-year Home Office statistics show that people from Black ethnic groups are subject to a disproportionate number of searches. Between 2009/10 to 2018/19 the data showed people from three Black ethnic groups had the highest rates of stop and search out of all 16 individual ethnic groups.
It is widely acknowledged that disproportionate stop-and-search has strained relations between Black communities and the police. The Joint Committee on Human Rights heard evidence last week that an estimated “85% of Black people in the UK were not confident that they would be treated the same as a white person by the police.”
What impact could this policy have on Black people?
The Government’s consultation acknowledges that: “a disproportionate number of Black people… Black males in particular…” may be subject to SVROs. There is a risk the police mistake innocent people for those with an SVRO. This could result in Black people (both those with and without SVROs) being disproportionately exposed to searches conducted without reasonable grounds.
The Government says SVROs are needed to “break the cycle of offending,” and protect people from harm. It cites the disproportionate number of Black victims of violence as a reason to press ahead with the policy. The Government is hoping SVROs will help the police target their stop and search activity to those more likely to carry knives.
The Government is a long way off finalising its SVRO proposal. The consultation asks a range of questions, such as: when should the courts apply SVROs to offenders? How long should they apply for and what checks and balances should be put in place to ensure the police use the power lawfully? It will remain open till 8 November 2020.
Police powers: stop and search, House of Commons Library (June 2020).
Serious violence and knife crime: Law enforcement and early intervention, House of Commons Library, (January 2020).
About the author: Jennifer Brown is a researcher in the House of Commons Library specialising in police and crime.