Research into young Londoners’ experiences and perceptions of stop and search
Stop and search is a part of day to day life for many young people in London who hold very strong views on stop and search and on the police. Undoubtedly the use of stop and search powers is a major contributor to negative attitudes held by young people towards the police and is seen as part of the cause for the riots in August 2011. The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) introduced a new approach to stop and search and the London Assembly wanted to assess whether young people had noticed any changes to the use of the power since its implementation. The London Assembly Police and Crime Committee therefore commissioned OPM to undertake independent research into young Londoners’ experience and perceptions of stop and search in September 2013 as part of a wider investigation into changes to the MPS’s use of stop and search powers.
What we did
The research comprised of five focus groups with 36 young people in five areas of London, to seek their views on police use of stop and search. We worked with youth organisations to set up and run these focus groups that took place in Hackney, Waltham Forest, Hammersmith, Southwark and Tower Hamlets. The majority of participants were male, aged 16-20 and of black or Asian ethnic background, due to this demographic being the most likely to be stopped and searched, There was a broad mix of backgrounds, including ex-youth offenders, ex-gang members, students, community volunteers and NEETs (those not in education, employment or training). To inform the design of the materials for the focus groups, we held a workshop with members of the GLA’s peer outreach team, a group of young people aged 15-25 who engage with and gather the opinions of young Londoners to inform the work of the GLA.
The five key research questions which this work sought to address were:
- How stop and search affects young people’s relationships with, and attitudes to, the police.
- Whether young people are aware of the MPS Commissioner’s commitments to improve stop and search and the associated targets.
- Whether they believe the targets will make a difference and whether other action is needed by the MPS leadership team.
- Whether young people have noticed any changes in the quantity, type or quality of stop and search since the new policy was introduced.
- Whether young people’s views change when they see performance data on stop and search.
The report aimed to inform the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee of OPM findings regarding young people’s views on police use of stop and search and provide recommendations on possible improvements and developments that could be made to the stop and search approach. Key findings and recommendations included:
- While there was widespread acceptance that the stop and search powers are necessary for tackling crime, many perceived that young people are often stopped because of their appearance rather than based on specific intelligence. Furthermore, it was felt that that police officers do not always follow procedure or conduct stop and search in a professional manner. Young people felt victimised by repeated stop and searches, embarrassed to be seen involved in a stop and search, and annoyed to have their time, and police time, wasted.
- The impact of this on their attitudes to and relationships with the police was to create a strong sense of injustice and resentment.
- Most (although not all) participants had noticed changes to stop and search over the past year to 18 months, primarily fewer stop and searches, but some also noted more targeted stop and searches (less ‘random’). Participants were uniformly unaware that this may have been linked to a change in approach. Clearly any intended communications from the MPS to young people about the existence of the new approach had not reached them. OPM found that most agreed any data regarding changes in approach should be communicated to young people, especially data which shows that stop and search is becoming more targeted, ‘smarter’ and more effective (rather than simply the overall reduction).
- The reports concluded that the new MPS policy on stop and search seems to be having an impact on young people’s experiences on the ground, to varying degrees (depending on the area they live in and/or their age). Furthermore, again with varying degrees, it has had an impact on their overall perceptions of the police (depending on their pre-existing perceptions).
- The key change that young people wished to see going forward was around the attitude and manner of the police when conducting a stop and search. They wanted the police to be more respectful, polite, calm and friendly, and avoid aggressive or patronising language and behaviours. They requested that police ensure discretion and dignity by avoiding conducting a search in a busy place in view of others, and avoiding unnecessary personal contact.
- Other potential improvements included a proportionate number of officers to conduct a stop and search, an extended time limit between stops and a more intelligence-led approach rather than targeting of ‘familiar faces’. The police should clearly explain both their reasons for the stop and search, and the young person’s rights.
- To really make a difference to young people’s views, the commitments and targets for change must be backed up by visible action.