Opinion Articles

Scrapping the police ‘stop’ form

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In her address to Police Federation delegates at their Bournemouth conference, Home Secretary Theresa May, spoke in rather vague terms of the new government's intention to reduce the burden of 'stop and search' procedures, and of her intention to scrap the 'stop' form, which police officers are currently required to complete when a member of the public is stopped and questioned but not searched. Music to the ears of those assembled, but what are the implications for the wider public, those the police profess to serve?

Historically, police powers to stop, search and detain a person for anything stolen or unlawfully obtained were confined to London and a number of other cities and towns, each of which had been granted legislation for that purpose. Section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which over time would acquire notoriety as the 'sus' law, empowered police to stop and search people who had committed no offence, but were suspected to be frequenting or loitering with the intention of doing so. The widespread use and alleged abuse of 'sus', particularly in multi-ethnic areas of the country's major cities, led in 1981 to its abolition following the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure. The 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) standardised police powers to stop and search for stolen or prohibited articles throughout England and Wales. Section 3 of PACE required police carrying out a search to make a written record, as well as informing the individual concerned of her/his rights to obtain a copy of the record. The Act did not, however, require police to make a written record when an individual was stopped and questioned by police but not searched. In 1999, the Macpherson Inquiry report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence sought to remedy this defect and recommended that all police stops of members of the public should be recorded; a proposal that was finally implemented in 2005. Additional powers to stop and search were introduced to deal with anticipated acts of violence (1994), and acts of terrorism (2000).

Police officers have consistently argued since the introduction of PACE that the requirement to make a written record each time a stop and search is undertaken - the form takes only a moment or two to complete - is so time consuming that it restricts their ability to perform their duties as they would wish. Some four years ago, I obtained from the Home Office statistical data of all stop and search procedures carried out in England and Wales in the preceding year by officers classified as operational; i.e. those not engaged in office, training or administrative duties. The figures revealed that in the 12-month period in question, an average figure for stop/search per operational police officer was less than 10 a year, or roughly one every 5.5 weeks. The position of the police on recorded 'stops' - what Sir Ronnie Flanagan, chief inspector of constabulary referred to in 2008 as 'stop and account [for your movements] - is similar to that on stop and search. They argue that it is unreasonably bureaucratic to have to complete a form each time a police officer stops and speaks to, but does not search a member of the public. It may be that in removing the obligation placed upon police to make a written record of each 'stop', a vital safeguard for members of the public is about to be removed.

Black and Asian people continue to be disproportionately stopped and questioned. Individuals who have previously come to police notice are also more likely to be stopped and 'engaged in conversation' by police for the purpose of intelligence gathering. At the moment, such people are entitled to a copy of a written record that they have, albeit briefly and temporarily, been deprived of their liberties. Should they subsequently complain that they are being stopped and questioned so frequently, or in such circumstances that police action is unreasonable or amounts to harassment, they are able to produce documentary evidence in support of their claim. After a period of government in which police powers have been extended as never before, one wonders how the scrapping of this safeguard is in any way advantageous to the public, rather than what it appears to be; a measure by an incoming government intended to placate police rank and file by removing what they regard as a tedious and unnecessary obligation.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


Stop and search: what can we learn from history?, a BBC History Magazine article by James Whitfield.

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