Kath Murray is an SCCJR research associate at the University of Edinburgh.
For over three decades, public and political debate on the use of stop and search ‘has been inescapably linked to “race”’. In Scotland however, a different narrative has emerged in the last couple of years. Here, much of the story has revolved around age, from the volume of searches that fall on young people, to the use of non-statutory stop and search on young children.
There are two good reasons for this focus. First, the age-distribution of stop and search in some parts of Scotland is clearly out of kilter with offending trends. In other words, it’s disproportionate. The second is the fact that age is easily measured (a similar point can be made for gender).
Whilst age is important, it’s not the full story. The missing factor is social and economic deprivation. Whilst Scotland may have unusually high rates of stop and search, the extent to which these searches fall on the poor is likely to be staggering. It seems clear that deprivation and exclusion lies at the heart of Scotland’s uneasy relationship with this controversial tactic. The problem is, we can’t nail it.
Looking at electoral ward data provides some clues. The Calton ward in Glasgow has one of the highest levels of stop and search, together with multiple deprivation and low male life expectancy. In 2005, 45% of the population were income deprived, compared to 25% in Glasgow City. In 2014/15, the recorded search rate among males in Calton was 879 searches per 1,000 population, more than double the rate for Glasgow City. For twelve to fifteen year olds in Calton, the recorded search rate was 1,310 per 1,000. Calton is a relatively high crime area. Still, it’s a huge number of searches, of which 75% were negative.
Turning to the practicalities of capturing the relationship between policing and deprivation. Police data documents where stop searches take place; but not where those searched come from, or at least, not in a quantifiable format. One method would be to systematically record all names and addresses. However, these individual entries would need to be linked, which is easier said than done. Moreover, unless a search has uncovered something unlawful, recording people’s details raises serious concerns in relation to privacy and data retention.
A potential compromise might be to request a person’s postcode. This would preserve anonymity and provide a reasonable, if not exact, indicator as to the extent to which searches impact on people from deprived areas.
Deprivation is a key stop and search indicator on several counts. At the heart of the matter is the fact that inequality can be linked to violent crime. Also, public services have a duty to reduce inequality. Policies which exacerbate marginalization or push out certain sectors of the population go against this principle and are likely to be counter-productive. For example, research shows that excessive targeting is likely to damage public trust in and support for the police.
Social justice and tackling inequality are currently at the top of the political agenda in Scotland. As a core public service, policing needs to be part of this debate. Nailing the relationship between the use of stop and search and deprivation would make a good start.