Photograph: Gideon Mendel/Corbis
Stop and Search is one of the vital tools police officers have in determining if an individual is in possession of a dangerous weapon or illegal items such as illicit drugs. Home Office figures for the year up to March 2020 show that of the 577,054 searches carried out in England and Wales, 63% were for possession of drugs with 13% resulting in an arrest.
In Bedfordshire over the same period, of the 3,476 Stop and Searches carried out, 68% were for drugs with 9% resulting in an arrest. Police officers are required to establish grounds for carrying out a Stop and Search and to follow certain guidelines when conducting a search: inform the person being searched why they are being stopped, what they are being searched for and provide them with a copy of the search form. Officers are also expected to always switch on their body-worn video cameras to record all Stop and Search. This protects both the police and the person being searched. It also forms the basis of further training and improvement where needed for officers who face an increasingly challenging task in keeping our county safe.
That being said, the ongoing disproportionality of Stop and Search is a matter of concern. Recent figures indicate that at a national level, black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people, while black suspects arrested following a Stop and Search are also less likely to be charged or cautioned for an offence.
I know that Bedfordshire Police are conducting an internal review, led by Chief Inspector Ian Taylor, into how Stop and Search is being deployed across the county, additional to the work being done by our own Scrutiny Panel – which has been praised for being one of the best in the country. The latest government figures show that of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, Bedfordshire now has the lowest Stop and Search rate per 1,000 members of the black population. At three times the rate, our disproportionality level is also the lowest in the country.
Given where we used to be, I welcome this progress and the work being done by Bedfordshire Police to tackle the disproportionality issue, but it cannot end there. We need to gain a greater understanding of why this disproportionality still persists and the impact it is having on those most affected by it.
Our officers have an important job to do in taking dangerous weapons and illegal items off our streets so that we can be safer in our homes, business premises and on our streets. Their job in tackling criminal activity is that much more effective when they enjoy the support of law-abiding citizens in the county.
I am probably one of the few who can write about this subject from both sides, having stopped and searched people of all backgrounds as a Special Constable until recently, as well as having been on the receiving end of a number of Stop and Searches – as a teenager and as an adult. I support the absolute need for officers to have this power, but fully understand the concerns many people have about how Stop and Search is deployed given its very low 'find-rate'.
Moving forward, it is essential that we keep open the channels of communication between the police and communities affected by such issues especially. Public trust and confidence are probably the most important resource available to our police officers. This is why the need for ongoing dialogue, backed up by demonstrable effort, effective scrutiny, and a learning culture are all absolutely vital in order to maintain the high levels of public support that policing requires.
When these happen, we all win.