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This Library briefing forms part of a series about police powers. The research breifing Introduction to police powers provides an overview of police powers and links to other relevant breifings.

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 three types of stop and search powers:

  • powers which require officers to have “reasonable grounds” to conduct the search, sometimes known as ‘section 1’ searches;
  • a power which allows officers to search without reasonable grounds, sometimes known as ‘no suspicion’ or ‘section 60’ search. This power can only be used when authorised by a senior officer based on certain ‘pre-conditions’.
  • a power officers can use to search those they ‘reasonably suspect’ are terrorists. This terrorism power is not discussed in this briefing.

Officers must use a specific legislative power every time they carry out a stop and search. They must be able to demonstrate they used 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

Police forces have reduced their use of stop and search over the past ten years, but the number of searches has recently increased. The number of searches conducted across England and Wales in 2018/19 was 73% lower than in 2009/10 but 36% higher than in 2017/18.

The reduction in the use of stop and search was the result of reforms to the power bought forward between 2013 and 2016. At the beginning of the 2010s there were concerns that the police were overusing their stop and search powers and conducting poorly targeted searches. This was resulting in some ineffective and unlawful use of stop and search. Reforms were introduced to police guidance which encouraged forces to ensure their use of stop and search was based on robust intelligence and information.

The current Government and policing leaders have argued that stop and search should form part of the response to violent crime. The Home Office has relaxed voluntary guidance on the use of pre-condition search introduced during the 2013-2015 reform period and encouraged forces to use their search powers more frequently.

The use of pre-condition search has increased over the last two years. Most searches are still conducted using reasonable grounds powers (97% in 2018/19) but the number of pre-condition searches has increased in the last two years: from 631 in 2016/17 to 13,175 in 2018/19. Pre-condition searches accounted for around 10% of the overall increase in the use of stop and search between 2017/18 and 2018/19.

Tactical use

A small number of forces conduct most stop and searches. The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) conducted almost half of all searches in 2018/19 (48%). 64% of all searches were conducted by just five forces: the MPS, Merseyside, West Midlands, South Wales and West Yorkshire. 

Most searches are conducted to find drugs. Around 60% of all reasonable grounds searches were conducted to find drugs in 2018/19 with around 15% conducted to find offensive weapons.

Fair use?

Evidence suggests that police practice has been improving but there remain concerns that some searches are not conducted lawfully and effectively. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has repeatedly called on forces to do more to monitor and scrutinise their use of the powers.

Impact of stop and search

Those in policing claim that when stop and search is targeted and conducted in line with the law and guidance, they can confiscate dangerous and prohibited items without undermining public trust in the police. Those opposed to stop and search argue that a history of poor use demonstrates it is a fundamentally flawed police power. They note that the long-standing disparity in the search rate by ethnicity continues to ensure that BME people are disproportionately affected by the negative effects of stop and search.

BME people were 4 times more likely to be searched than white people in 2018/19. The difference was particularly pronounced for black people, who were ten times more likely to be searched than white people.

Poorly targeted and conducted stop and search is widely acknowledged to damage police community relations, whilst evidence regarding the impact of stop and search on crime is more mixed. There is little evidence to suggest that stop and search provides an effective deterrent to offending. Stop and search is more effective at detecting criminals. Around a fifth of all searches (22%) in 2018/19 resulted in a criminal justice outcome (an arrest or out of court disposal) linked to the purpose of the search. It is estimated that 8% of all 2018/19 arrests were generated by a stop and search encounter.

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