Legitimacy of police forces ‘undermined by stop and search failures’

Community Support Officers patrol the city centre in Sheffield.
Community Support Officers patrol the city centre in Sheffield.
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The majority of police forces in England and Wales treat people fairly and ethically, but are let down by a lack of progress on the issue of stop and search, according to a government watchdog.

Of the country’s 43 police forces, 37 were rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ on legitimacy, which includes whether they operate fairly, ethically and within the law, how they engage with local communities and their use of stop and search and tasers.

All four Yorkshire forces were rated as good by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, despite some areas where they were judged as needing to do better, though neighbouring Cleveland was one of five forces given a lower rating of ‘requires improvement’.

The issue of stop and search has long been controversial for the police service because of evidence certain ethnic groups are disproportionately likely to be targeted.

It emerged last year that four out of every five uses of police stop and search powers in Yorkshire result in no further action being taken.

HMIC inspectors found that the use of stop and search was declining but that police need to be given the confidence to use the policing tactic correctly.

Their report said too many forces are still not recording the reasonable grounds for stopping a person, and that in one force, almost two-thirds of records reviewed did not record this detail.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Stephen Otter, who led the inspection, said: “The majority of police forces demonstrate fair and ethical behaviour; the public expect no less.

“However, all the good work that we’ve seen forces are doing to engage with their local communities risks being undermined if they continue to fail to get stop and search right.

“This is the third time we’ve looked at stop and search in the last three years and although there is some improvement, it’s not happening fast enough. This is inexcusable given that it is one of the principal indicators of police legitimacy.”

West Yorkshire Police’s local police teams were found to have “a good understanding of their neighbourhoods and engage positively with the public”, though their approach to dealing with people of Eastern European origin “needs to be developed”.

On the subject of stop and search, HMIC said: “West Yorkshire Police is complying with the Best Use of Stop and Search scheme, however the link between the item searched for and the outcome of the search needs to be published and information about use of these powers should be more accessible.

“Some local officers are not confident about the use of these powers. However, when the powers are used, the use is mainly fair and appropriate.”

South Yorkshire Police, whose reputation has been damaged by the Rotherham sex abuse scandal and controversy over the investigation into singer Cliff Richard, was said to have “effectively promoted an ethical culture and set of standards, which is used to guide officers and staff”.

The force was said to have “an effective engagement structure” and “recognises that this needs to be retained to maintain and enhance the legitimacy of the organisation in the eyes of the people of South Yorkshire”.

HMIC said: “One area South Yorkshire Police needs to improve is its use of stop and search. It needs to ensure that every stop and search record includes the reasonable grounds required to justify the lawful use of the power.

“I also look forward to the introduction of new software which will allow officers to record any link between the reason for the search and any item seized.”

North Yorkshire Police was said to be “committed to developing and maintaining an ethical culture”, according to HMIC, who added that “the chief constable had set out his vision and values for the force, and expected standards of behaviour”.

The watchdog said: “Officers and staff told us that they felt valued, and would be confident and willing to challenge decisions and unethical behaviour.

“We are satisfied that North Yorkshire Police has a good understanding of the needs of its local communities and that most officers and staff treat people fairly and with respect.”

It added: “North Yorkshire Police complies almost completely with the Best Use of Stop and Search scheme. However, much more needs to be done to ensure that the grounds for stops and searches are fully understood, recorded accurately and properly supervised.”

Humberside Police was found to be not complying with guidelines on the best use of stop and search, as it did not accurately publish and record stop and search outcomes.

Inspectors said senior officers “had clearly communicated its vision and values to the workforce and was actively developing an ethical culture throughout the force”.

But they added: “We are concerned by the number of staff who told us they were too busy to engage with the public or deal with local concerns. This is something the force should closely monitor to ensure that its good work is not undermined.”