In Depth

When are the police allowed to stop and search?

Proposals to relax ‘reasonable grounds’ condition has met with mixed response

Police chiefs across England and Wales are reportedly discussing plans to broaden officers’ stop and search powers by scrapping the “reasonable grounds” condition.

Advisors to Home Secretary Sajid Javid have held talks with senior officers within the last two weeks to discuss the proposal, which comes amid a spike in knife crime in many of the UK’s major cities, reports The Guardian.

Adrian Hanstock, of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), said there “are a lot of calls for officers to do more stop and search”. If an officer “does not have sufficient grounds or X-ray vision to see the [offender] is carrying a weapon, and they are concerned they may have something to cause harm, that should trigger a search”, he told the newspaper.

But commentators say such a move risks fuelling accusations of police discrimination against minority ethnic communities, amid increased debate about civil liberties and how to tackle violent crime.

When can police stop and search suspects?

Currently, UK law stipulates that police officers are allowed to “stop and question” any member of the public, but may only physically search them if they have “reasonable grounds” to suspect they are carrying illegal drugs, a weapon, stolen property or “something which could be used to commit a crime, such as a crowbar”, says government portal Gov.UK.

Reasonable grounds means that an officer must have “an objective basis for the suspicion based on facts, behaviour, information and/or intelligence which are relevant to the likelihood of finding an article of a certain kind”, according to Northamptonshire Police guidelines.

The official guidance adds that reasonable suspicion “can never be supported on the basis of personal factors”, such as race, age or nationality.

However, under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, a search can be undertaken without reasonable grounds in certain circumstances and if it has been approved by a senior police officer.

Usually, this means police being given power to search anyone in a certain area: for example, when there is evidence that serious violence has taken place or may take place. However, permission for mass searches is only granted for a limited time.

If you are stopped and searched, the police officer is obliged to inform you of their name and police station, what they expect to find, the reason they want to undertake a search and why they are legally allowed to conduct a search.

The police officer can ask you to take off your coat, jacket and gloves, but if you are asked to remove further clothing then the search must be carried out by an officer of the same sex as you.

Crucially, “being searched doesn’t mean you’re being arrested”, says Gov.UK.

What are the arguments for scrapping reasonable grounds?

Concerns over rising knife crime have triggered debate about reforming stop and search laws.

“First and foremost, I am ensuring police have all the powers they need,” Javid told The Sun on Sunday. “Carrying any type of knife is totally unacceptable.”

But critics insist his proposed solution is equally unacceptable, in light of data that shows black people are “around nine times” more likely to be targeted for searches than white people, by a police force that remains disproportionately white, according to The Guardian.

The London Evening Standard  notes that the vast majority of people stopped turn out to be innocent. During her time as home secretary, Theresa May voiced concerns that the targeting of black people had eroded the trust of ethnic minorities in the police, the newspaper adds.

However, the NPCC’s Hanstock insists the new laws could fit better with a fresh approach that treats violent crime as a public health issue, rather than a matter solely for the criminal justice system.

“The outcome of a positive search does not have to be a criminal justice solution. What’s the alternative? It could be a health or welfare approach,” Hanstock said.

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