Stop and search: The gulf between the police front line and academia

Chris Hobbs /   April 15, 2017 at 8:53 AM 8,475 views

This post was completed shortly before the Westminster tragedy which resulted in the deaths of five individuals including PC Keith Palmer. It was decided to postpone publication until after his funeral. In the interim, knife crime has continued unabated with three fatal London stabbings in 24 hours. Recently issued crime figures show a disturbing increase in both knife and gun crime.

Buried deep on YouTube is the briefest, heartrending, tragic clip of a teenage boy lying, prostrate face down on the floor. His limp body is seen being turned over by two police officers and there the clip ends. In fact numerous, more lengthy clips of what was a fatal stabbing appeared on YouTube before being taken down. The clips also showed the above-mentioned police officers working frantically to keep that boy alive. They failed.

It is not an untypical scene on the streets of London and other major cities where police are not infrequently on the scene before paramedics. Yet despite disturbing evidence of an increase in knife crime, there appears to be more concern at police stop and search as opposed to the injury and death suffered by victims.

Predictable outcome

There was a collective groan amongst officers on the front line when it emerged in late February that three policing academics had produced a paper in relation to stop and search at the behest of the College of Policing. It’s headline grabbing theme was that stop and search had a negligible effect on violent crime and, it would seem, crime in general as drugs and burglary appear to have been included in the research.

Expecting policing academics and the College of Policing to proclaim a ringing endorsement of police stop and search was akin to believing that that the NHS was really safe in Conservative hands or that there would be a full House of Commons chamber for the debate on police officer safety.

The mindset of the academics could perhaps be seen by the post-publication tweet of one of three authors of the paper, when, after announcing his part in the publication, he went on to tweet:  “when you set that in the context of harms associated with stop and search, it is clearly a tactic that urgently needs re-thinking.”

One of the other co-authors also demonstrated his hostility to stop and search in a piece that he and another contributed last year to the ‘Sage handbook of Global Policing.’ No preconceived ideas amongst the trio there then.

Of course, assembling statistics that will probably suit your purpose and then applying methodology that provides the pro-ordained answer is a practice which the British public became all too familiar pre- and post- the Brexit referenda. Look at one set of figures/reports/papers compiled by experts/economists/politicians and it is clear the golden dawn of independent prosperity is just a few short years away, while examination of an alternative set leaves little doubt that we in the UK are going to a post-Brexit hell in a handcart.

Draw the desired conclusions from the selected figures, wrap them up in academia speak and low and behold, there is a headline grabber albeit one that has to be slightly qualified. Perhaps, the authors suggest, stop and search just might make a small difference in certain circumstances, but the academics would know that the headline would be that stop and search has a ‘negligible effect on crime.’

Not quite the nationwide headline grabber

Unfortunately the headlines grabbed weren’t as prominently displayed as was perhaps hoped. True, the Times ran with it but if the authors had hoped to bring about an earthquake in respect of public opinion against stop and search they failed. Police magazines did feature the story but if the College of Policing and the authors anticipated that their research would drive Brexit and Trump off the BBC and Sky news agendas they must have been sorely disappointed.

In an ideal policing world, rank and file officers would be hoping to feel the supportive love of the UK’s policing academics in general and the College of Policing (CoP) in particular. Instead the CoP is widely regarded as an arm of the Home Office and a Government which has more than proven its anti-police credentials. The chasm that opened has been widened still further by proposals that the UK’s police service should consist exclusively of graduates and that policing should no longer be seen as a long term career.

The subliminal message to all serving officers without degrees is clear together with the additional intimation that they would be ‘too thick’ to cope with the future demands of the police service.

There was an inevitability as to the subsequent post publication ‘negligible effect’ headlines such as there were, which could only lead the reader to assume that stop and search tactics by police were a waste of time.

Equally though, could it not be argued, using a similar premise, that the arrest of criminals has a negligible effect on crime? Would routine arrests made over say, a three month period, have any dramatic effect on crime in any borough, division or force? The arrest of a hugely prolific serial offender might while a resource intensive operation against specified criminality, say burglary, could also have an impact, but during an average month? Of course, even the most left-wing policing academic wouldn’t imply that arrests are largely a waste of time – well not yet anyway.

Both academics and senior police officers have proclaimed  the virtues which have resulted from the curtailment of stop of search after criticism from the then Home Secretary Theresa May, David Cameron, the Met’s own commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. There is no doubt that the proportion of successful stop and searches in relation to the reduced total undertaken, has risen.

Much of the criticism has been levelled at front line Met officers and it’s those figures that are often quoted. The figures however that don’t seem to be quoted by the Met or our academic friends are those which suggest that curtailment comes at a price. Arrests as a result of stop and search after curtailment reduced dramatically by around 1,000 a month.

Another interesting statistic which doubtless the academics would find irrelevant, would show whether the right individuals are being stopped, in other words how many of those stopped and searched by police have significant criminal histories?

‘Not relevant’ I can hear activists and academics cry, and indeed comments to that effect have been posted on Twitter debates. I suspect however that the majority of the British public across all communities would find the publication of such figures both relevant and of interest.

Lord don’t stop the carnival

Whilst policing academics and activists may suggest that stop and search has a ‘negligible’ effect on crime, front line officers would point to the chaos and crime seen every year at the Notting Hill carnival. The effect of almost any knife crime seizure is normally unquantifiable in that it is almost impossible to predict whether that knife would have caused harm or not.

Last year’s Notting Hill carnival saw significant levels of violence despite 200 pre-carnival arrests and there are demands that even tighter security be imposed next year. The much criticised section 60 order was imposed this year whereby police could search individuals without needing reasonable grounds. The result was that 90 knives and other bladed articles were seized by police.

Of course, the effect of those seizures in terms of the stabbings and perhaps murders that did not occur is unquantifiable. Most police would say that carnage was almost certainly averted. Perhaps it is time for policing academics to put their heads above the parapet and campaign for a ‘peace and love’ Notting Hill carnival minus stop and search, in 2017.

Whose streets?

The same arguments that apply to the carnival could also apply to the streets. The authors of the CoP paper on stop and search left themselves some wriggle room. Stop and search might be of some use locally in certain circumstances such as ‘hot spots’ which perhaps they might concede would include the carnival.

The authors were even quoted as saying that “it does not follow that stop and search is ineffective against crime and there are suggestions that the power probably has more of an impact locally.” Yet they also commented that while there were some positive effects they were “minimal” and “typically weak.” It reminded me of Theresa May’s speeches denigrating police; there was, amongst the denigration always a contradictory sentence that praised the police.

It is normally not possible to measure the ‘harm reduction’ in respect of every knife/bladed article seizure. One fact is certain however; those victims of knife or indeed gun crime murdered on our streets, would still be alive today if their assailant had been stop and searched before encountering their victim.

A plain clothes officer (purple t-shirt) tends to a recent stabbing victim in East London, who sadly died

Since police, at the behest of government, activists and academics, curtailed stop and search the ‘weapons genie’ has emerged from the bottle and is proving very difficult to force back in. Clearly increased ‘carrying’ can only be linked to a view that the odds of being detected are remote while the ‘two strikes and out’ law, prison on the second conviction for possession of a knife, appears to have had no effect whatsoever.

Another factor could just be the absence of patrolling officers on the streets. Encountering a police officer on foot patrol is now, in many parts of the country, a rarity as community policing has had to give way to other priorities. Officers in vehicles are often rushed off their feet dealing with emergency calls, working through copious amounts of paperwork or, in many forces, travelling miles to a custody suite before having to queue in order to process their prisoner.

This of course reduces the chance of an individual who habitually or occasionally ‘carries’  being detected yet despite the constraints on officers and decreasing visibility on the streets knives are still being seized with disturbing frequency, which suggests ‘carrying’ is reaching epidemic proportions which reduces the chances of detection.

Do I or don’t I?

Let’s take a hypothetical example of a youth who lives on a gang ridden estate. He is about to leave his flat and has little choice but to travel through areas controlled by rival gangs. His estate though has a well-motivated, adequately staffed, highly visible safer neighbourhood team who are regarded as firm but fair by those on the estate despite the fact that they undertake ‘stop and search.’ Will that influence his decision in respect of picking up the knife?

Conversely, if the sight of a patrolling police officer on his estate or indeed on rival estates, is as rare as a polar bear in the Sahara, is that likely to increase the temptation to pick up that knife for self-protection?

Which leads us into consideration as to the issue of stop and search and police being ‘intelligence led’ or in the case of a specific knife/gun crime operation ‘more intelligence led!’ How do you deal with the individual, who, perhaps not even a gang member but is fearful of being attacked by those who are, makes a decision to pick up a knife seconds before leaving home?

Let’s stop stop and search

It has been suggested by some within the police community that stop and search be abandoned altogether. This was indeed apparently considered by the former Met commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, and indeed would be the ultimate litmus test in terms of the effectiveness of stop and search in relation to crime.

Many officers however would be concerned that such a step would result in a dramatic increase in violent crime and injuries. This also explains why conscientious officers, despite severe provocation from the Government, will not take a form of ‘industrial’ action such as handing back their firearms authorisations or police driving permits, both of which would cripple the UK’s police service. Consideration for potential victims comes first.

A Metropolitan police officer renders first aid to another London stabbing victim

Some may argue that whilst stop and search would continue, it would only be under the most controlled of circumstances such as where ‘high grade’ intelligence had been received and was documented on a police intelligence form known as a ‘5×5.’ Where the situation was fast moving, stop and search could only take place if a 5×5 was created by a force control room operator and sanctioned by the control room inspector.

This would take away any responsibility from the front line officer other than to be totally professional in carrying out the stop and search. The number of stop and searches would be greatly curtailed and those carrying knives, guns, drugs or stolen property would be able to do so with near but not total impunity.

One of several positive aspects would be that police officers would not run the risk of acquiring complaints including those of racism which could run for months or even years and have a detrimental effect on their careers.

The negative side of such a policy would, in the view of the police community, see a resultant additional increase in violent crime. However, if policing academics are correct and increased stop and search has a negligible effect on crime then surely a dramatic reduction limiting stop and search to the strict parameters as outlined above, shouldn’t see any notable increase in crime.

Perhaps, if this policy was implemented nationwide, Bet Fred, Paddy Power, Ladbrokes etc would give odds on which way certain categories of violent crime would move. The worst case scenario however would be no joke for those who became victims because of this policy.

CoP, police academics and the front line

There is no doubt that the paper published by CoP has been regarded as yet another attack on stop and search by default front line officers. It reinforces the view that many (but not all) policing academics are divorced from the realities of the ever thinning thin blue line and demonstrate little empathy or sympathy for the difficulties faced ‘at the sharp end.’

There are of course policing academics who are police officers. They are regarded as being divided into two camps; the first being those who regard themselves as police officers first and foremost and who use their skills for the benefit of their colleagues and the public, while the second are primarily concerned with using their academic skills (and jargon) to climb the greasy pole of promotion.

It couldn’t be said that the CoP stop and search research has contributed to their ‘losing the dressing room’ of the police rank and file because quite simply they have never ‘had’ the dressing room in the first place.

Yet no front line officer will deny that first class training is essential if the police service is to adequately meet many of the emerging challenges they face. It would be also churlish to condemn all the work undertaken by CoP. There is no doubt that within the CoP are talented individuals who have and will make positive contributions to front line policing.

Sadly as the stop and search paper clearly illustrated, the ethos of the College of Policing appears not to include empathy and sympathy for those facing increasing difficulties and indeed violence on the ‘front line.’

This was highlighted by the tepid comments following the Independent Police Complaints Commission decision in respect of police officers involved in firearms incidents. True, they expressed reservations but the timid nature of these reservations would hardly have resulted in any sleepless nights at the IPCC.

Similarly, the report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary which stated that policing was in a ‘perilous state’ resulted again in tame comments about demand but failed to question, as have others, HMIC’s methodology in respect of individual examinations of each force or the stress and pressures that forces and front line officers are under.

The response of CoP to any contentious policing issue that may ruffle the feathers of the Home Office tends to resemble the aggression level of a soporific, gumless sheep (with thanks to Dennis Healey and Geoffrey Howe).


Meanwhile for officers at the sharp end of policing, the increasing incidents of stabbings in London and elsewhere continue, decreasing numbers of Merseyside officers are having to deal with gang related gun crime while across the country assaults on officers are increasing both in number and severity. Meanwhile, many force CID departments are in crisis thanks to ridiculous caseloads which have resulted in detective work being shunned by potential volunteers. Morale, however measured and regardless of by whom, is disturbingly low.

Rank and file police are struggling to keep their heads above water as resources, despite statements to the contrary, decrease. Rather than the constant attempts to re-invent the wheel, they would welcome, to repeat, some sympathy, empathy and concern rather than the condescending attitude that mirrors the famous “I look down on him” sketch with John Cleese representing the world of many (but not all – Emma and colleagues at Canterbury Christchurch University included) linked to UK policing academia.

Ronnie Corbett could be said to represent the overburdened, much criticised, multi-skilled rank and file officer

I suspect the end result of this lengthy piece will be not a lot. Some lofty criticism perhaps using words that as a thickee ex-cop I won’t understand or a verdict that this is not worthy of comment.

Perhaps though, it might, just might, bring about a welcome ‘we stand shoulder to shoulder with you to help you’ attitude, but I’m not holding my breath.

Chris Hobbs

(Metropolitan Police 1978 to 2011)

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22 thoughts on “Stop and search: The gulf between the police front line and academia”

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  2. Anna says:

    I’m a front line cop in LX.

    We can’t stop and search our way out of the problem.

    There has been a drastic curtailing of S&S. Yet, do we see more stabbings? I don’t buy it. I remember huge violent knife crime spikes at the height of S&S five or six years ago (eg Op Blunt)

    If you’re a teenager who thinks it’s sensible to carry a knife for reasons of bravado, fear or something else; is the fact that there’s a slightly increased chance you’ll get S&S enough to make you think twice? Doubt it. There’s so much more at stake – defending themselves, their friends, their estate. Or attacking others and gaining a reputation.

    The views of the Law are surely not in the forefront of their minds. It’s certainly not: ‘I better not carry a knife because of the Police’. Yeah right. You pussyole.

    Knives are easy to obtain and conceal and if you produce one, everyone shits themselves and you walk away the big man. Until you get knifed yourself.

    So the question we should be asking is not: why on earth would you carry a knife but why WOULDN’T you?

    Not that you care about being stabbed, given that violence has been a feature since you can remember and your prospects in life are maybe being an older in a drug gang or, well..?

    This is the crux: nothing police can do can really act against risk-taking, cerebral-cortex-lacking youngsters being violent against each other.

    The saddest thing for me is on these estates there are all these 14 year olds who are just normal kids with good parents and who will do well in life. They just don’t go outside. They’re terrified. They just stay in and play Fifa.

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