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Stop and search: how police forces in England and Wales compare - and which ethnicities are targeted most

As Priti Patel scraps restrictions on controversial section 60 stop and search powers, our analysis reveals they are 13 times more likely to be used on Black people

<p>Section 60 stop and search: police officers are to be given greater powers on the controversial ‘suspicion-less’ stops</p>

Section 60 stop and search: police officers are to be given greater powers on the controversial ‘suspicion-less’ stops

Government plans to strengthen police stop and search powers risk worsening community divisions, campaigners warn, after analysis found Black people were 13 times more likely than white people to be subject to the measures.

Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a lifting of restrictions on section 60 stop and searches in England and Wales on Monday (16 May). Section 60 powers allow officers to search people without reasonable grounds or suspicion of wrongdoing in areas where they anticipate violence.

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Officers will now be able to award themselves the powers for longer periods, and more junior ranking officers will be able to give the green light to deploy them.

Stop and search powers are controversial because of concerns ethnic minorities are disproportionately targeted.

But how often do police deploy them, which groups are targeted, and how do different police forces compare?

How often are section 60 searches used and who is targeted?

Analysis of the latest Home Office data by NationalWorld has found Black people were 13 times more likely to be subject to section 60 searches in the year to March 2021.

During that time 21 out of 44 forces in England and Wales used the powers a total of 9,230 times.

White people were stopped 3,272 times, Black people 1,750 times, Asian people 973 times and mixed race people 356 (the remainder were either searches of cars or the ethnicity was not known or ‘other’).

England and Wales’ population is overwhelmingly white, however, and ethnic minority people were hugely overrepresented in the searches.

There were 87 searches per 100,000 Black people – 13 times higher than the rate for white people, of seven per 100,000. The rate for Asian people was 21 per 100,000 and for mixed race people it was 35.

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The gap between Black and white groups was twice as large for section 60 searches compared to stop and searches in general, including those carried out in pursuit of drugs or stolen property.

For stop and search as a whole, there were 4,860 per 100,000 Black people, around six-and-a-half times higher than the rate for white people which stood at 720 per 100,000.

The analysis uses Office for National Statistics population estimates for 2016, the latest year with ethnicity breakdowns for local areas.

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The Home Office said restrictions placed on section 60 powers in 2014 by then Home Secretary Theresa May had seen officers “lose confidence” in using them.

While the number of searches fell by 49% last year (during the pandemic) compared to the year to March 2020, police still carried out almost 2.5 times as many as they did in the year ending March 2014, when there were 3,816.

What are the outcomes from Section 60 stop and searches?

NationalWorld’s analysis found no difference in the likelihood of officers finding prohibited items on Black or white people after a section 60 stop.

In 8,182 out of the 9,230 searches (88.7%), nothing was found. For Black people, nothing was found in 87.4% of cases, while for white people it was 87.3%.

There were however 132 instances where nothing was found on a person or in a vehicle after a search but they were arrested anyway. Almost half (44%) involved Black people, where the ethnicity was known. 

The Home Office said such scenarios could be down to subsequent arrests for public order offences or for people who are dicovered to be wanted by the police.

Out of 1,048 cases where officers found a prohibited item, in almost nine out of 10 cases it was not a weapon or other item linked to the initial reason for the search – the anticipation of violence.

How do police forces compare?

There is huge variation in the frequency with which police forces use stop and search, with the majority of forces not deploying section 60 powers in 2020-21 at all.

Merseyside Police was the most likely to use section 60 powers in England and Wales, with 64 searches per 100,000 residents, more than four times the national rate of four per 100,000 (based on 2020 ONS population estimates, the latest figures without an ethnicity breakdown).

It was closely followed by London’s Metropolitan Police, at 60 per 100,000, then Thames Valley (which covers Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes, and other Home Counties areas) at 42.

Merseyside also had the highest rate of stops for Black people, at 380 per 100,000 people (based on 2016 population estimates), nine times higher than the rate for white people.

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When looking at stop and search overall, the Met had the highest rate, at 3,523 per 100,000 people, followed by Merseyside on 3,404 and Essex with 1,403. This excluded City of London police, where a small population skews the figures.

The Met had the highest rate for Black people, at 6,921 per 100,000 (3.5 times the rate for white people).

This excludes Dyfed-Powys and North Wales, whose Black populations appear as 0 due to the ONS figures being rounded to the nearest thousand. Both may have had a higher rate than the Met.

What about other kinds of stop and search?

Police forces carried out an additional 706,757 searches under other powers, where they need to have reasonable grounds to suspect a person is carrying drugs, a weapon, stolen goods or other prohibited items. These are known as section 1 searches.

Only one in four (25%) were known to have resulted in the officer finding something.

Police were most often searching for drugs – 68% of cases were done on these grounds. That was followed by offensive weapons (12%) then stolen property (8%).

What has been the reaction to Priti Patel’s announcement?

Limitations on section 60 powers were put in place by then Home Secretary Theresa May in 2014.

Human rights charity Liberty said Priti Patel’s decision to lift them wil “worsen existing divisions between police and communities at a time when public trust and confidence in police is at a serious low.”

Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns for the charity, continued: “We all want to feel safe in our communities, but the police have consistently shown that they do not use stop and search fairly or proportionately, so giving them even more power isn’t how we get there.

“Not only are Section 60 stops not effective at detecting and reducing knife crime, they disproportionately affect people of colour, particularly Black people.

“Instead of handing the police ever greater powers, the Government should repeal suspicion-less stop and search powers like Section 60.

“We need community-led interventions through investment in health, education, housing and social welfare – and for those in power to work with communities to develop strategies for keeping all of us safe which have human rights at their heart.”

Liberty and activist group StopWatch launched a legal challenge against Ms Patel when she first announced the plans last year, on the grounds that the Government’s equality impact assessment was “not up to scratch”.

Liberty said it is yet to see a new assessment.

What does the Home Office say?

In its announcement, the Home Office said the greater powers will help police prevent knife crime and tackle serious violence.

It said the restrictions on section 60 had “limited when officers could use the vital power and decreased their confidence in deploying it”, and that removing them will “give officers full operational flexibility and the confidence they need to use the tool, helping rid the streets of dangerous weapons and save lives”.

Responding to NationalWorld’s analysis, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Nobody should be stopped and searched because of their race and extensive safeguards such as statutory codes of practice and body worn video exists to ensure that this does not happen.

“Every knife taken off our streets is a potential life saved. Stop and search removed almost 16,000 dangerous weapons from our streets and resulted in almost 80,000 arrests last year.

“Crime statistics show increasing proactive policing, like stop and search, is helping the police find more knives and drugs, and arrest more criminals.”