Police Scotland in Hot Water over Stop and Search policy

By David Thomson

Controversial ‘Stop and Search’ policing powers have been reigned in by Theressa May after figures showed that only one in ten searches end with an arrest.

May warned that she would change the law if forces do not halt ‘excessive and inappropriate’ use of powers while delivering this year’s Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust Criminal Justice Lecture, in memory of the murdered teenager.

Many believe the power to stop and search people has been disproportionately targeted at black and ethnic minorities, a trend that has led to a rise in tensions between the police and ethnic minorities and accusations of the police being ‘institutionally racist’.

Stephen Lawrence’s younger brother, Stuart, has been stopped and searched by officers on 25 occasions since he was 17. On one occasion in 2013, a Scotland Yard officer was disciplined after he followed Stuart and stopped him while driving his car.

But it’s not only in England and Wales where stop and search policies are being called into question. In the last year in Scotland there has been a problem of ‘Stop and Search’ happening to children. Research from Edinburgh University found that people in Scotland are four times more likely to be search than in England. In 2010, they found that tens of thousand of children, some as young as seven, were searched without any legal case.

A study from the university’s Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research found that children under the age of 14 were searched 26,000 times without any authority. This includes 500 searches of children under the age of ten and 72 searches of children aged seven or under.

And it is even worse for 16 year-olds. In the Strathclyde region, which includes Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, for every 1,000 16 year old living there, 1,406 16 year-olds have been searched.

Tam Baillie, Scotland’s commissioner for children and young people, said: “We have to be sure that this is absolutely the right way to go. [If] we’re embarking upon an exercise of mass stop and search, particularly targeting young people, there will have to be proper safeguards in all of that.

“The one concern I have is that the police could be alienating and distancing the public from them and we’ve lots of evidence [from England] about the disproportionate use of stop and search against certain groups. We have to learn the lessons of the negative and unintended consequences of stop and search.”

Both Police Scotland and the Scottish Government robustly defend the policy by saying that it has helped to produce record fall in violent crime and the carrying of weapons, particularly in the west of Scotland where there is a higher  likelihood of young people carrying a knife.

After pressure from the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Police Scotland has stopped the policy for under-12s after Assistant Chief Constable (ACC)  Wayne Mawson told a Holyrood committee last June that it would end the “indefensible” practice of consensual searches.

The Liberal Democrat Justice Spokesperson, Alison McInnes, said: “People deserve to know why Police Scotland hasn’t kept their word on scrapping this unregulated and illiberal position.”

Since then, both ACC Mawson and Chief Constable House were brought in front of the Justice Committee after a string of scandals, including ‘Stop and Search’ policy for children under 12s and more worrying, trying to suppress the research done by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research.

Kath Murray, whose PhD was the bases of the research,  tried to put in an FOI request to Police Scotland on the number of stop and searches across the country. Police Scotland tried to lean on her by saying that she can get the information without putting in an FOI, but they would need to see the research before it was published. The offer was declined by Ms Murray. Ms Murray managed to find old files from the regional forces before Police Scotland, which helped with her research.

Police Scotland, only been formed for less than two years, face a problem of trust by the members of the public. But with an increase of children drinking under-age and carrying a knifes, the police are left with the tricky conundrum of how to deter them doing it in the first place.

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