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'Increased scrutiny' sees police use of stop-and-search fall in West Yorkshire

Debate rages over whether stop-and-search divides communities or helps fight knife crime
Debate rages over whether stop-and-search divides communities or helps fight knife crime

POLICE use of stop-and-search powers has been dwindling at a time when violent crime has increased, official figures show.

The use of stop-and-search has been falling nationally in recent years, because of reforms to police guidance in the wake of concern that black people were being unfairly targeted.

West Yorkshire Police carried out 37 per cent fewer searches for weapons or drugs in 2017 than the year before, despite seeing a 24 per cent rise in violent crime.

Assistant Chief Constable Catherine Hankinson, of West Yorkshire Police, said the fall in the use of stop-and-search locally was down to “a number of things, such as increased scrutiny, as well as mandatory training designed by the College of Policing”.

She said officers needed to “demonstrate clear, objective and reasonable grounds before conducting any search”.

Ms Hankinson said while the number of searches had fallen, the proportion resulting in illegal items being found had increased.

Suspicion of carrying offensive weapons, such as knives, accounted for 865 of West Yorkshire Police’s 8,258 searches in 2017, with a quarter leading to an arrest or court summons.

A further 162 suspects were searched for firearms, with 24 arrested or charged.

West Yorkshire’s police commissioner, Mark Burns-Williamson, said “very mixed messages” from the Government had contributed to the declining use of stop-and-search.

He said: “Appropriate use of stop and search is a really valuable tool for the Police in helping to prevent and fight different types of crime. I have worked with the Chief Constable and West Yorkshire Police to make sure that our officers know it should be an intelligence-led approach which is used proportionately and fairly, something that is now captured and monitored through body-worn video footage of every stop.”

A spokesman for the Home Office said: "We have been clear that stop and search is a vital policing tool, and officers will always have the Government's full support to use these powers properly."

Stop-and-search is one of the most divisive topics in policing, with debate raging over whether it is an effective way to combat knife crime or a means by which black and minority ethnic people are unfairly targeted by law enforcement.

The tool had fallen out of favour when Theresa May was Home Secretary. She introduced reforms to reduce its use, arguing that as many as 250,000 searches a year were being carried out illegally.

However, her successor Amber Rudd struck a different tone, making clear she was in favour of the targeted use of stop-and-search.

In January, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, previously a staunch critic of the policing tool, changed tack after six people were killed in shootings and stabbings in the capital in just one week.

Before his election in 2016, Mr Khan had pledged to do everything in his power to further reduce the use of stop-and-search, saying it “undermines public confidence in our police if Londoners are being stopped and searched for no good reason”.

But in the wake of the upturn in violence this year, he revealed plans for a significant increase in its use.

His announcement provoked criticism from Labour colleagues, with a “disappointed” Tottenham MP David Lammy telling the Guardian: “As we speak, there will be a young, white, middle-class man smoking a joint with impunity at a campus university, and the police will be nowhere in sight. But a young black or Muslim man walking through Brixton or on Tottenham High Road will be stopped and searched, and end up with a criminal record that blights their life chances for ever.”

Last month, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot said use of stop-and-search poisoned relations between the police and the communities they served, often only turning up small quantities of drugs while hampering efforts to gather intellingence on more serious crimes.

Black people are still disproportionately likely to be the subject of stop-and-searches across England and Wales, the police data shows.

Officers identified suspects as black in one in four cases, despite black people making up just three per cent of the population in the 2011 Census.

Reforms sparked by tensions over the use of the powers prompted the chairwoman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council to speak out last month, warning that the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction.

Sara Thornton said she feared the political climate had led to a “chill effect”, with officers now feeling hesitant to use the powers.