Stop and search has been a contentious issue for police and public for as long as I can remember.
The aim of stop and search is to deter people from carrying offensive weapons or drugs because of the risk of being caught. However, over recent years, the public mood turned against stop and search – for two reasons.
First, it didn’t seem to work. When the Home Office evaluated their ‘Tackling Knives and Serious Youth Violence Action Programme’, which used stop and search extensively, they found it made no difference to levels of knife crime. Similarly, another anti-knife crime campaign across London in 2008 called Operation Blunt 2, had no impact on crime reduction. At the same time, far too many stops have been undertaken without ‘reasonable suspicion’.
And that leads to the second reason for people being against stop and search. The police must have reasonable suspicion that someone is carrying a weapon or drugs before they can stop and search. Too many young people were being stopped with no result – and this could have been a misuse of police powers.
This brought the police into disrepute, especially among some of the ethnic minority communities whose young people were disproportionately affected. This is one reason why I ask my Independent Ethics Panel to keep under review stop and search by South Yorkshire Police.
But the public mood is shifting. As a result of the rise in knife crime in the past year, more people seem to accept that stop and search has to remain one way in which the police can keep us safe.
In recent months I have had many mothers of young people come to me and say they support stop and search if it will help to keep their children safe and out of trouble.
This doesn’t mean that we are less concerned than we were about the police needing to have reasonable suspicion or less concerned about some communities being stopped far more than others. But it does mean that if the police can get better at identifying those who should be stopped, they will not lose community support.
Those mothers I met said they were willing to speak to the police about those who resorted to knives. That is the sort of intelligence the police need and which good neighbourhood policing can deliver.