What is the truth about stop and search policies?

Inspector Dennis Murray at Wootton Hall, Police Headquarters.
Inspector Dennis Murray at Wootton Hall, Police Headquarters.

Here in Northamptonshire we have a melting pot of cultures; people from different backgrounds who live alongside each other and are all represented by the same police force.

But staffing and running a police service so that it represents each racial community fairly is not a straightforward business.

For more than 10 years, the Northamptonshire Black Police Association (NBPA) has been operating in this county; a body of people which provides support for BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) officers and staff and helps to improve relationships between the police and the various communities in the county.

One topic within their remit is that of stop-and-searches, an issue which has caused controversy for many decades amid accusations that police across the country use these powers to stop more black people than white.

Nationally, the Government has recently completed a six-week consultation over the future of police stop-and-search powers, which was launched after home secretary Theresa May told MPs that black people are still seven times more likely to be searched on the street than white people.

According to Northamptonshire Police figures, last year 7,871 people were stopped and searched and, of these, 8.1 per cent were arrested, although the figures gave no breakdown as to skin colour, focusing rather on ethnicity. Of this total, the groups mentioned in the list included 5,076 British (skin colour not alluded to), 193 Caribbean and 171 African people.

According to Inspector Dennis Murray, chairman of the NBPA, stop-and-searches have been called into question in the past. But he believes, in situations where it looks like more people from minority groups have been stopped, this often has something to do with the operations the police are carrying out at the time and who the suspects are.

“There is a stop-and-search working group and the BPA sit on that panel. If we had a series of robberies where a black male was involved and someone was seen acting suspiciously we would stop and ask them questions. A lot of the time there is an underlying reason about why something seems to be disproportionate.”

He added: “Having investigated the data myself, I would say it is a misconception. The officers have a high degree of training in stop-and-search powers and we have done a great revamp of stop-and-search. They have to have a good explanation and it has to be signed off by a supervisor.

“When reporting searches we have to write a detailed account of what happened.”

Anjona Roy, chief executive of the Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council, who has worked with the NBPA in the past over stop-and-search concerns, said she would like to see more done.

“Northamptonshire doesn’t seem to be doing better than other places which have reduced disproportionality completely using different tactics and I would like Northamptonshire Police to do that.

“If there was a requirement for a camera to be on when stop-and-searches were being taken, there would be a better sense of accountability. It might influence officers’ behaviour if they knew what was taking place was being recorded. Officers have the equipment on them.

“We still do get people complaining to do with disproportionate stop-and-searches and people thinking they have been unfairly targeted, but this issue has been around for decades. Being concerned doesn’t cut the mustard, it really does influence communities’ relationships with the police.

“Talking to other senior police officers, they say ‘we want a position where there isn’t disproportionality,’ that is admirable but we have to do something about it. I know there will be times when there will be particular instances which increase disproportionality but it is about transparency.”

The NBPA’s work goes beyond looking into stop and search statistics. Priorities include supporting police employees from different backgrounds in the course of their work and also helping to encourage more people from BME communities into the force.

Dennis said: “Initially we used to look at recruitment. We aren’t recruiting many people at the moment but we are recruiting volunteers from a variety of backgrounds.

“We also look at how we can retain people who come to us and use their skills to good effect, and their cultural knowledge to good effect.”

According to Northamptonshire Police figures given for August 2013, 90 per cent of the force were categorised as white, while 6.2 per cent had not stated their ethnicity and 3.8 per cent were ‘visible ethnic minorities’ (declared as non-white British).

But why are so few people from ethnic minority backgrounds joining the force?

Insp Murray said people from BME groups are hard to reach but important to the work of the police. He said: “BME groups are hard to reach per se. There are a number of issues that might stop some people from applying, in relation to culture, language or potential fear of the police. The BPA can go out and reassure them and talk about their experiences as officers, to try to encourage people to apply and support the police.

“We will use strengths, we have employees who are Polish. That is good if you are looking for an interpreter to come out. We have got officers on the force who speak Afrikaans, we have Sikh and Muslim officers.”

He continued: “A Muslim 
officer has to pray at certain times of day, we would attach them to a buddy to help them arrange that or, at Ramadan, we might work with them to get their shifts changed as they don’t eat at certain times. It is supporting them. Some people don’t think their culture will be cared for, but we don’t treat everyone the same, we cater for things, if someone has a cultural need.”

Ms Roy said she would like to see more recruitment of people from diverse backgrounds to Northamptonshire Police.

“We have to look at the reasons why you want a diverse police force. It is about having a force that is representative of the community it serves.

“They have a campaign for Specials at the moment but the real issue is they are not recruiting. With the recruitment of Specials, I’m not saying that is not positive, it is a means through which people can get experience so when people are in the position to recruit again we will have people from diverse communities who have experience; that in itself is positive.”