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12 November 2018

Would making it easier for the police to stop and search people cut crime?

The evidence suggests not. 

By Stephen Bush

Are Theresa May’s reforms to reduce illegal and racially discriminatory use of stop-and-search behind the rise in crime? Some Cabinet ministers think so, and according to the Guardian, the police are seeking a dilution of restrictions on the power in order to increase the number of searches.

But the rush to blame the changes to stop-and-search can’t be supported by the facts. Crime fell for three years after May’s reforms to how the power was used – not, I hasten to add, because of the change, but because the United Kingdom, like most of the western world, has been enjoying a long fall in crime for the past quarter-century. Stop-and-searches were also falling before May’s reforms were introduced. That fall has gone into reverse (albeit a very small one compared to historic crime rates even as recently as 1990) this year.

It is hard to sustain the case that it took three years for changes to stop and search to cause a rise in crime in the United Kingdom, for a variety of reasons. The first is that when David Blunkett became Home Secretary in 2001, he asked the Metropolitan Police to cut down on the number of stop and searches, and there was an immediate spike in crime. What Blunkett did differently to May was that essentially, in 2001, the Home Office asked the Metropolitan Police to cut down on the number of searches but did not provide any guidance on how to do so. The Met simply carried out fewer searches but the racial disparity did not reduce. Black people were still seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people – but all people, regardless of criminal intent, were less likely to be searched. The number of searches and crucially, the number of arrests in real and percentage terms, all fell.

May’s reforms were different. What she did successfully was curb the number of illegal searches without reducing the number of arrests arising out of the use of stop-and-search. It simply isn’t true to say that as a result of May’s changes, fewer criminals are being stopped and searched: the total number of arrests hasn’t changed and has risen slightly with the increase in crime. What has fallen off is the number of searches after which no action was taken.

This is obviously a big problem for anyone who wants to claim May’s reforms are behind the rise in crime: why did it take three years for the change to produce an increase in crime when it took no time at all for Blunkett’s change to produce one?

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In addition, the overall rise in crime is nationwide – but most police forces are using stop-and-search at the same rate as they ever have.

The reality is that you cannot defend the unreformed power’s effectiveness: just one in ten searches led to an arrest, and while black people were seven times more likely to be searched, they were not seven times more likely to be arrested following a search, nor seven times more likely to commit a crime. The power of stop-and-search was, before the 2014 changes, a highly ineffective and racially discriminatory one. (There is still a disproportionate racial lean but it has significantly reduced.)

Anyone who thinks otherwise is in the realm of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”. There is no evidence to suppose that the rise in crime is anything other than the consequence of the broader pressures the public realm is facing across the board as a result of years of growing financial pressures. Claims to the contrary require new evidence – and until then, they can be summarily dismissed.

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