Police fail test over stop and search

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A dramatic reduction in the use of stop-and-search powers by police produced a better rate of arrests while maintaining crime clear-up rates, according to research published yesterday.

The results will put pressure on police forces to reduce the number of stop and searches, which have caused particular discontent among the Afro- Caribbean community following suggestions of victimisation of black youths.

In the first experiment of its kind, a comparative study between two similar Metropolitan Police divisions found that a 52 per cent reduction in Police and Criminal Evidence Act searches conducted in Tottenham, north London, produced a higher ratio of consequent arrests but did not appear to damage clear-up rates. In the other division, Vauxhall, south London, and nationally, searches increased during the study period, which ran from July 1995 to June 1996.

Numbers searched in Tottenham fell from 7,334 to 3,533. Although arrests also fell by 45 per cent, the proportion resulting from searches rose from 10 per cent to 12 per cent. Although similar in size, social and economic factors, police divisional strength and organisation, the numbers stopped in Vauxhall were 7,743 - similar to the previous year.

Two key distinctions between the two areas appear to account for the wide disparity in the use of the power. During the study, which was conducted by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders for the Haringey Community and Police Consultative Group, anyone stopped in Tottenham was given a leaflet explaining the police powers being used and the individual's rights. Those stopped in Vauxhall were not.

In addition, searches had been removed as a performance indicator in Tottenham, while the division had improved targeting of suspects and given a commitment to improve relations with the community. Searches remain a performance measure in Vauxhall.

The study found that 45 per cent of those searched in Tottenham were black, although black people account for only 24 per cent of the local population. Bernie Grant, Labour MP for Tottenham, said: "I have never argued that the police should not have the power to stop and search when they have real cause to suspect criminal activity. But unnecessary use of stop and search has now become so extensive as to amount to an abuse of civil rights."

David Gilbertson, a Metropolitan Police commander and formerly Division Chief Superintendent at Tottenham, says in the foreword to the report that the leaflet initiative had led to "a marked reduction in the level of stop and search without any appreciable loss in terms of effective policing".

Ann Dunn, one of the report's authors, said the leaflet "made some officers think twice about stopping somebody".

Tottenham's decision to scrap stop and search as a performance indicator in favour of a "quality, not quantity" measure is also likely to have played a significant part.

Stop and search was "a contact sport for officers", which was highly competitive between teams trying to outdo each other, one senior Tottenham officer told the researchers.