Q&A: Amid Rising Stop and Search Rates in England & Wales, a Better Model Emerges

Police perform stop and search in Northamptonshire
A police officer from the Northamptonshire Police speaks with a man. © Northamptonshire Police

In August 2019, the UK Home Office rolled back restrictions on stop and search as part of an effort to crack down on knife crime and violence. As a result, stop and search rates rose by 32% across England and Wales in the last year, despite research that has repeatedly shown stop and search practices have little impact on crime reduction. 

A unique partnership between police and community members in Northamptonshire shows how police officers can improve community relations and trust, while also practicing effective policing. Open Society Justice Initiative’s Rebekah Delsol spoke with Sally Trattle of the Northhamptonshire Police about the initiative. 

Prior to the initiative, how would you describe the relationship between the police and communities you serve?

To be honest, I do not think police officers have an accurate way of measuring our relationship with the public. Our friends are most likely to respond positively to our questionnaires and surveys that attempt to measure relations. Those who do not trust us are unlikely to offer an opinion. We are viewed differently by different sections of the community. A poor experience for one person will influence more people than a good experience with twenty people. “The community” is not a group of one mind or one experience.

Explain the new model of regulating police stop and search powers in Northamptonshire.

It was very simple. The model asks members of the community their opinion on whether the grounds for stop searches were reasonable.

The legislative guidance on stop and search procedures states that an average member of the public with no specialized training or knowledge should be able to recognize if search grounds are reasonable.

We meet with a different community group each month and ask them to vote on whether the grounds for individual searches are reasonable. Two officers are also there to vote, but the public representation is usually between 5 and 15 members. I tried hard to include members of the community who might not normally choose to engage with the police. The panel has different members every month and there is no vetting or even a record of attendees.

There are real results from these meetings. If found unreasonable in their actions, officers and supervisors go through a series of professional development processes to improve their policing practices. There is no point in asking people their opinion of we ignore it, which is a frequent result if someone tells police something we do not want to hear.

Did any of the results surprise you?

I must admit that I was initially surprised at how much the community panel members invested in the process. They worked hard to consider the circumstances. They are careful about their decision-making and fairness of their evaluation. Panelists told researchers that they found the experience positive and worthwhile, and many commented that they felt differently, and specifically positively, about the police as a result.

As an officer myself, I was a little afraid that opening up to scrutiny outside of normal channels would be a negative experience. This was not the case—even with people who admitted they did not like the police. Officers on the panel have even been critical of the grounds given for searches by their own colleagues.

Why was it important to have both police and the community involved in this new model?

There is a legislative requirement for public evaluation, but the quality of that scrutiny is important. The panel allows open and honest conversation, and the public can see that we are critical of ourselves.

There has been a significant number of community members interested in participation, even more than what we require. This showed me that prior panelists told others about the panel and its value.

Most importantly, I think genuine public involvement means policing is something we do with the community, not to it.

Given your experience, what recommendations do you have for other police forces?

I would recommend that they be bold because genuine public scrutiny works better than you think. Listen and talk with, not to, the real public. They want to help and are supportive if it is clear we care about what they have to say.

Do not be defensive. It is OK to admit when we get it wrong, but ensure them we want to be better. Also, make sure that you do real and quantifiable actions to make improvements over the long term. Change requires making changes; we cannot just keep doing the same old things and hope that magically something will be different. I think we, both the police and public, concentrate on quick wins, rather than initiatives with a legacy of sustainable improvement. The two are often not compatible.

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