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The extension of stop and search powers is essential – how else will the police deal with rising crime?

While it is stupid to be complacent, the ethos of many constabularies has moved in recent years, making formerly commonplace racism less likely than in the past

Tuesday 04 September 2018 18:20 BST
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Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick wants stop and search to include acid attacks

Trends in criminal justice are hardly a matter of fashion, but the police power to stop and search has certainly been subject to waves of popularity and unpopularity. Over many decades, a pattern has emerged whereby an increase in certain violent crimes causes understandable public alarm. This is then responded to by the authorities who propose to restore or enhance stop and search powers for officers on patrol.

After a time, abuses, particularly in “targeting” ethnic minorities, brings the policy into disrepute. It turns counterproductive by reducing the efficacy of community cooperation with the loss of cooperation by local communities to law enforcement. Worse, riots can occur. Then the power to stop and such is scaled back, or police officers feel too nervous to make much use of it. And so the cycle goes on.

This time, as they say, may be different, in two respects.

First, the extension of such powers is merely catching up with current trends in crime. Drones, acid attacks and the use of lasers to attack aircraft are criminal innovations scarcely thought of, if at all, the last time the laws were looked at.

A laser pen aimed at the eyes of a pilot of passenger jet coming to land at an airport could potentially cause far more fatalities than carrying a knife, no matter how vicious or “voodoo” its design. It is only sensible that the law catches up with such changes.

Though they are relatively uncontroversial aspects of these changes, it is worth noting that the availability of highly capable but cheap drones is a public order issue that will only grow in complexity and challenge over the coming years. Drones are, for example, already being used to circumvent prison security, with lurid tales being told of them being used to smuggle in anything from the synthetic drug spice to fillet steak.

More controversial is widening the discretion police have generally. There is always a balance to be struck between civil liberties and the protection of the public, and the authorities are only to be expected to generally err on the side of the police.

In the past, such proposals might be treated with great scepticism, if not alarm, as they were so often a panacea that yielded little real rest and much resentment.

Yet there are some grounds for supposing that the powers might be used more sensibly now. Police carrying body cams ensures that the entire run of a stop and search exercise, from initial contact through to caution, arrest or releases will be recorded and subject to scrutiny, and bulk statistical analysis. That ought to serve as a powerful barrier to abuse. These body cams also have the added benefit of acting as a counter to random witness footage captured on smartphones and posted online with no context.

Sometimes they will be evidence of genuine brutality; sometimes they will only record a police reaction against criminal brutality. Body cameras help ensure that the whole story is told, and make stop and search a more effective tool, to be used wisely and intelligently.

The police also now, especially since the Stephen Lawrence affair, the MacPherson Report and the riots of 2011, a much more acute understanding of the role public support across racial and religious groups to the success of their mission to serve all of the public.

While it is stupid to be complacent, the ethos and composition of many constabularies has moved in recent years, again making the racist use of powers less likely than in the past. The old canteen culture may have changed.

Last, the public and media have a much more vigilant attitude both to the crime statistics and to the use of police powers. We are, as a nation, generally less deferential, less trusting and less prepared to tolerate abuses of power.

The police may, then, acquire new and wider powers, but they will remain under an obligation, and an increasingly self-imposed one, to make sure they are not abused. They, more than most, know the terrible consequences for national policing if they get it wrong.

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