Simon Hughes: Reform stop and search to rebuild trust

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THE Liberal Democrats have announced proposals to overhaul “stop and search”. We want to help transform community relations and the public’s trust in the police through tightening the laws on stop and search, and requiring some police officers to wear body cameras when they stop someone.

There are three types of stop and search. Firstly, when the police have reason to believe a person has committed or is about to commit a crime. We remain in favour of this power.

The second is when the police believe there is a terrorist act about to take place. We’ve already reviewed how this works and tightened up the process.

The third and much more contentious type of stop and search is Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

This allows a police officer to stop and search a person without suspicion.

Section 60 stop and searches can take place in an area which has been authorised by a senior police officer on the basis of their reasonable belief that violence has or is about to occur.

But the blanket ability to stop and search anyone without reason creates community tension and damages trust in the police. It also leads to the police stopping a disproportionately high number of black and minority ethnic people.

In November 2013, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that black people were six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, but in some areas this was as high as 29 times more likely.

The same research found that those from Asian or other ethnic minority groups were twice as likely to be stopped as white people.

This disproportionate targeting people of black and ethnic minority backgrounds has damaged relations between the police and some communities. What’s worse, it’s not proved effective. In 2009-2010, only 0.32 per cent of Section 60 searches – one in 300 – resulted in an individual being arrested for possession of an offensive weapon.

To restrict the use of the Section 60 power so that it better reflects what was originally intended, Liberal Democrats want applications for Section 60 areas to be authorised by a judge on a time limited basis. Not a police officer but an independent judge who can look at the evidence justifying this power.

We would also tighten up the Police Codes of Practice that deal with stop and search.

We will ensure that “reasonable suspicion” is better defined so that there is a specific focus on known criminals or, in identification cases, those matching accurate first descriptions and not racial groups or age groups.

But most importantly, we will require all officers stopping someone under Section 60 to wear a video camera. We will also introduce rules making the wearing of body cameras by officers mandatory for officers armed with firearms and for riot police.

Body-worn cameras can play an important role in helping to bring suspects to justice, but they also allow people to understand exactly what happened and who said what. Trials already show that issuing police officers with body-worn video cameras can bolster evidence taken at scenes of crime and bring about swifter justice by encouraging suspects to make early admissions of crimes.

They also help build confidence in the police, and give the public the reassurance that both the Police and public’s actions will be on record.

Often cases of alleged malpractice involving firearms or police in riot 
gear attract lengthy and costly investigations.

By placing body-worn cameras on officers involved, this evidence will improve our ability to hold the police 
and public to account for their actions.

Even at this early stage in the trials the signs are promising, and the College of Policing has already published new guidance that enables the use of body cameras for response officers dealing with domestic abuse cases.

This isn’t about questioning the ability of the police. This is about ensuring that the public and police are both protected by modern technology.

It will no longer be one person’s word against another, with doubt and accusations flying back and forth.

It will be about the facts, and this will help build confidence in the police and help protect the public.

Simon Hughes is a Liberal Democrat MP and Justice Minister.