This briefing forms part of a series about police powers. The briefing police powers: an introduction provides an overview of police powers and links to other relevant briefings.
The police have a variety of legislative powers to stop and search those they suspect have certain items. Their stop and search powers allow them to “allay or confirm” their suspicions without making an arrest.
There are currently three main types of stop and search powers:
- powers which require officers to have “reasonable grounds” to conduct the search;
- a power which allows officers to search without reasonable grounds when authorised by a senior officer based on certain pre-conditions; and
- a power officers can use to search those they ‘reasonably suspect’ are terrorists. This terrorism power is not discussed in this briefing.
Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVRO) were also introduced in 2022 and will be piloted in at least one police force area. SVROs are court orders and once a person is issued with one, police officers will be able to stop and search the individual without needing to have reasonable grounds for suspicion or prior authorisation from a senior officer.
Officers must use a specific legislative power every time they carry out a stop and search. They must use the correct power for the circumstances of each search. They cannot rely on someone’s consent alone to search them.
The Home Office maintains statutory guidance on the most frequently used stop and search powers in PACE Code A. The College of Policing (the body responsible for professional standards in policing) maintains an Authorised Professional Practice (APP) on stop and search. All English and Welsh police forces have subscribed to follow, at least in part, additional Home Office guidance on the best use of stop and search.
Use of stop and search
Data shows that from 2009/10 to 2017/18 police forces reduced their use of stop and search year on year in response to concerns about search powers were being used and new guidance. But since 2017/18 the use of stop and search has begun to rise again.
Around 700,000 searches were conducted in 2020/21. Most searches are conducted using reasonable grounds powers (99% in 2020/21). However, the number of section 60 searches have still increased markedly in recent years. The current Government have argued that should form part of the response to violent crime and encouraged forces to use their search powers more frequently, removing voluntary guidance that had previously been issued to restrict section 60 searches.
Most forces conduct between three and six searches for every 1,000 people who live in their police force area. However, the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) and Merseyside Police are two notable outliers, having conducted 31 and 24 searches respectively for every 1,000 people.
Police watchdogs have raised concerns that some searches are not conducted lawfully and effectively and have repeatedly called on forces to do more to monitor and scrutinise their use of the powers. In a review of search records, the Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found 14% had recorded grounds that were not reasonable and a further 22% had weak recorded grounds.
Impact of stop and search
Evidence regarding the impact of stop and search on crime is mixed. There is little evidence to suggest that stop and search provides an effective deterrent to offending. Stop and search is more effective at detection but still most searches result in officers finding nothing. However, those in policing argue that when stop and search is targeted and conducted in line with the law and guidance, they can confiscate dangerous and prohibited items and do so without undermining public trust in the police.
Those opposed to stop and search argue that a history of poor use and long-standing ethnic disparities demonstrate that it is a fundamentally flawed police power. Black people experience the highest search rate at 53 per 1,000 compared to a rate of 7.5 per 1,000 for White people. HMICFRS says no force “fully understands the impact of the use of [stop and search] powers” and “no force can satisfactorily explain why” ethnic disproportionality persists. It is widely acknowledged that this damages police community relations and there is growing recognition of the “damaging impact” and potentially traumatic impact that it can have on individuals and collectively for communities.