Concerns raised over number of instances where 'stop and search' may not have been justified in Hertfordshire

The annual report of the Hertfordshire Independent Stop and Search Community Scrutiny Panel was presented to the police and crime panel

Thursday, 1st July 2021, 1:37 pm
Updated Thursday, 1st July 2021, 1:40 pm

Concerns have been raised about the number of instances where ‘stop and search’ may NOT have been justified in Hertfordshire last year, while data shows an increase in its use across the county.

Police can use ‘stop and search’ powers if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe someone is carrying illegal drugs, a weapon, stolen property or something that could be used to commit a crime.

Latest data shows that last year (2020/21) there were 9,486 instances of ‘stop and search’ in the county – which is 1,446 more than in 2019/20.

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Yet the proportion of searches that led to arrest dropped from 13.5 per cent in 2019/20 to 10.6 per cent (broadly equivalent to 1,005 arrests).

And the ‘positive outcome rate’ – which includes arrests, out of court disposals, community resolutions or conditional cautions – fell from 26.2 per cent last year to 23.5 per cent.

The data is included in the annual report of the Hertfordshire Independent Stop and Search Community Scrutiny Panel.

And that report also suggests that the panel’s ‘confidence’ level in the force’s use of ‘stop and search’ has dropped too.

As part of their role, members of the scrutiny panel look at police reports into individual instances of ‘stop and search’ every month, to determine whether the officer had sufficient grounds to justify the action.

According to the report – which was presented to the police and crime panel on Thursday, June 24, – over the past 12 months panel members have scrutinised 432 reports.

In 72.2 per cent of cases the panel members say that from the reports they were ‘confident’ the officer had sufficient grounds for the ‘stop and search’ – compared to 87.7 per cent the previous year.

But they were ‘not confident’ in 22.2 per cent of cases – and ‘unsure’ in 5.6 per cent.

And at the meeting concerns were raised by former police officer Cllr Sam North (Liberal Democrat, North Herts) – who suggested the 22 per cent ‘non-confidence’ level was “unacceptable”.

“It is a power that should be retained,” said Cllr North.

“But I do have significant concerns that when the panel is reviewing these stop and searches, there are one in five where they are not confident that they are legal.

“That in my view is a shocking statistic.”

In a foreword to the annual report Chief Superintendent Geoff Camp, who is chair of the Hertfordshire Constabulary’s Coercive Powers Board, acknowledged that stop and search was “one of the most intrusive and contentious of all police powers”. But he said it was a “valuable tool” to fight crime.

He said the work of the scrutiny panel provided ‘highly valued feedback’ to the constabulary – helping to understand how stop and search is carried out and whether the ‘grounds’ appear appropriate and sufficient.

And he noted the fall in the ‘positive outcome’ rate and in the panel’s confidence.

He said: “That said, the positive outcome rate has fallen a little this year (albeit Hertfordshire’s arrest rate for the year ending 31 March 2020 was the 4th highest of all forces), as have the Panel’s confidence levels.

“These are issues that the Constabulary is focused upon and an updated officer training programme is soon to be rolled out.

“We are also seeking to expand the way in which those subject to Stop and Search can quickly and easily provide feedback themselves, alongside the community complaints trigger and in addition to the existing complaints procedure.”

The Hertfordshire Independent Stop and Search Community Scrutiny Panel now has 19 core members and meets monthly to review monthly data and to scrutinise reports from a random sample of ‘stop and searches’.

Covid restrictions led to meetings in April and May last year being cancelled. And since then the panel meetings have been virtual – meaning it was not possible to view officers’ body worn video footage.

Following the meeting Assistant Chief Constable Matt Nicholls said the feedback from the panel is “greatly valued”.

“We are committed to delivering fair and proportionate policing and a county that is safe for everyone,” he said.

“Stop and search is a necessary tool as part of fighting crime and helping to keep people safe, however we recognise that it is a challenging issue for policing and that it provokes strong feelings within the community.

“It is of course vital that the public have confidence in police officers’ use of these powers.”

ACC Nicholls acknowledged that lockdown and restrictions had impacted on the use of ‘stop and search’.

And he said: “We have worked to ensure that all powers continue to be used appropriately and proportionately despite this challenging and changing environment.

“Where we have not met this standard we want to learn what went wrong and how we can do better.

“The panel’s feedback greatly assists with this process and has informed upcoming training for frontline officers.”

At the meeting, Hertfordshire Independent Stop and Search Community Scrutiny Panel chair Marianne Murphy referred to an increase in ‘cut and paste’ within police reports.

And she told the panel: “We don’t feel it’s good enough for a police officer just to cut and paste what another police officer has written in their records.”