Stop and search in Scotland: the SPA scrutiny review and Police Scotland’s response

Kath Murray's article in SJM3 (March 2014)

Kath Murray’s article in SJM3 (March 2014)

In May 2014, against a backdrop of media and political attention, the Scottish Police Authority published its Scrutiny Review on stop and search. The Review raised several key questions: Does stop and search work? What constitutes a successful outcome? And is the scale of search activity in Scotland justified? The Authority made twelve recommendations in relation to policy and practice, ten of which pertained to Police Scotland.

This blog examines the recent Police Scotland response to the Authority. The blog looks at effectiveness, proportionality, the use of non-statutory stop and search and accountability, and identifies areas that might benefit from further consideration. The blog also suggests additional data that could be provided to improve our understanding of stop and search policy and practice.

Does stop and search work?

One of the more striking observations made by the Authority was that the aim of stop and search seemed ambiguous, thereby making it difficult to clarify how success was measured. For example, it was unclear whether high detection rates constituted success; or if low detection rates meant the tactic was working as a deterrent (p.17). The Authority also noted a lack of evidence to suggest that stop and search directly reduces offending, other than through the mechanics of confiscation:

‘The deterrent effect of stop and search is difficult to establish. We can find no robust evidence to prove a causal relationship between the level of stop and search activity and violent crime or anti-social behaviour. Nor can we establish the extent to which use of the tactic contributes to a reduction in violence.’ (p.17)

In its first recommendation, the Authority asked Police Scotland to clarify its intentions in relation to the aims of stop and search, and how it should be measured:

‘Police Scotland should define the contexts within which stop and search is used as a preventative tactic; and as a means of detection. It should define appropriate outcome measures as well as the rationale for any target/s set.’ (p.25)

However, looking at the Police Scotland response, both points still seem unclear. On the one hand, weight is placed on intelligence and detection, by dint of a target detection rate of 20%. Yet on the other hand, this is offset by high-volume search activity, which in practice is likely to result in lower detection rates. In other words, there is a conflict between the aims of detection and deterrence.

‘Setting a target of 20% positive searches ensures that we continue to focus the use of the tactic intelligently and demonstrate the positive outcome, whilst recognising the wider preventative outcome that both positive and negative searches contribute to.’ (p.5)

‘The volume of stop and searches is… a key indicator to measure pro activity recognised internally and externally as an effective tactic in preventing and detecting these types of crime.’ (p.5)

The further difficulty here is that both positive and negative searches are viewed as constructive, which makes the tactic difficult to challenge.

In terms of impact, the Police Scotland response appears to be at variance with the Authority. Whereas the Authority stated that they could find no robust evidence to support a relationship between search levels and offending, Police Scotland make a link between search rates and offending trends, although this does not appear to be substantiated.

‘Stop and search preventative success can be judged through reductions in violent crime, antisocial behaviour and disorder in areas where the tactic is used.’ (p.5)

‘Kirkcaldy Central was identified as a priority ward through the use of the appropriate analytical products, and along with the effective use of other tactics stop and search activity increased by 44% from 457 to 657 searches between 1 April and 13 October 2014. This increased intelligence-led pro activity resulted in publicly reported ASB reducing by 3%… minor assault reducing by 23%… robberies reducing by 75% from 8 victims to 2 victims and murder/attempt murder down from 2 victims to no victims. This demonstrates that when stop and search is used in conjunction with other tactics it can significantly reduce disorder and have a preventative effect on more violent crime.’ (p.13)


Several recommendations touched on proportionality. For example, Police Scotland were asked to ensure that particular communities were not disproportionately impacted; to explain the significant changes in the volume of searches in some areas; and to assess the prioritization of stop and search against other policing activities.

In its response, Police Scotland recognized that proportionality can be measured in relation to different factors, including age, ethnicity and local crime rates. Whilst this type of detailed analysis is welcome, it is surprising that no data were provided in the response, particularly in relation to age, which has been raised as a concern by the Children’s Commissioner (for example, age data published earlier this year show that the search rate for sixteen to nineteen year old boys in Greater Glasgow was 2,298 searches per 1,000 boys).

Results from the Equality Impact Assessment on stop and search could provide further insights into proportionality. This assessment was underway earlier this year, and is presumably now complete. Also, financial evidence would be helpful. For example, it has been estimated that stop and search activity in the first year of Police Scotland cost over fourteen million, and that negative searches cost over ten million. These figures can help to demonstrate the extent to which stop and search is prioritized over other policing tasks, and might be discussed accordingly.

Non-statutory stop and search

Non-statutory stop and search allows officers to search people without reasonable suspicion, on the basis of verbal agreement. This type of search is not underpinned by legal authority and is arguably the most controversial aspect of Scottish police practice. Non-statutory searches also have a significantly lower detection rate than statutory searches, which raises questions about the extensive use, and purpose of the tactic (approximately seventy per cent of recorded searches are non-statutory).

Two recommendations touched on non-statutory stop and search, in relation to training, and ensuring that people were aware of their right to decline. At first glance, these recommendations seem straightforward, and in response, Police Scotland are piloting the following verbal statement:

“You can refuse to agree to this search as it is purely being done on a voluntary basis, do you understand that and are you are still content for this voluntary search to go ahead?” (p.12)

However, informed consent is complex, and extends beyond simple verbal agreement. For example, consent requires the maturity to understand what is being asked, and must be given without duress. Given that children as young as thirteen may be searched on a non-statutory basis, it seems unlikely that informed consent can be secured in such encounters. Indeed, it is arguable that informed consent is untenable in any encounter between uniformed officers and a member of the public.

Taking these points into consideration, the recommendations on consent were perhaps overambitious. Public and stakeholder concerns in relation to searching people without legal authority are however, unlikely to dissipate, and this might be identified as an area for further review and consideration by the Authority.

Police Accountability

Whilst a clear commitment to accountability is made in the Police Scotland response, this could be extended further, particularly towards those outside the policing organization. For example, it is concerning that for the duration of the Authority review, requests for data by journalists were turned down on the grounds that ‘misleading conclusions’ might be drawn by ‘non-expert users.

In order to improve transparency and inform debate, statistics on non-statutory stop and search could be made available in Police Scotland Management reports (and by the Authority). Also, it would also be helpful to provide insight into the role and views of the Expert Reference groups appointed by Police Scotland to provide feedback. Otherwise, the impression may be given that the current policy direction has been unanimously endorsed.

Where are we now?
Since the publication of the Scrutiny Review, it’s clear that progress has been made. For example, Police Scotland have established a National Stop and Search Unit to ensure consistent practice; a Best Practice pilot has been implemented in Fife; and the use of non-statutory stop and search on children aged twelve and under has been abolished.

However, there are still unanswered questions and ongoing concerns. For example, both the actual impact on recorded offending, and the appropriate measure of success seem unclear. Stop and search rates remain high, even taking into account the fall in recorded searches in the first quarter of 2014/15, whilst data from the first year of Police Scotland suggest that some young people are subject to disproportionate levels of search activity. This point is important, and raises serious concerns about the longer term effects on police legitimacy. And the thorny issue of non-statutory stop and search remains.

In short, the progress made thus far is hugely welcome. However, there is also a demonstrable need for further debate and action.

Kath Murray is a PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh. She recently submitted her doctoral thesis which examines the development of stop and search in Scotland, from the post-war period onwards.

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