POLICE Scotland has banned officers from carrying out “consensual” stop and searches on children under the age of 12 after a “damning” report into the force’s use of the controversial practice.
The report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) called for an overhaul of the tactic, including a new statutory code of practice and the removal of targets.
The watchdog said it lacked confidence in the data held by Police Scotland, saying it could not be relied on to inform future policy. It also said there was no clear link between the use of stop and search and reductions in crime.
Following the publication of the report yesterday, Police Scotland said there would be a move away from consensual searches, whereby officers have to simply ask permission, towards “statutory” searches, whereby a person is stopped under legislative powers.
Police Scotland said there would now be a “presumption” against consensual stop and search for all age groups and a ban on the practice for under-12s.
The force has been mired in controversy on the issue after figures released to the BBC appeared to show children under the age of 12 continuing to be searched, despite assurances from senior officers that it had been stopped.
HMICS found that officers, supervisors and managers in Police Scotland reported there was too much focus on stop and search, and staff wanted a 20 per cent target for positive searches – where drugs, alcohol or weapons are found – to be removed.
Among the report’s 23 recommendations – all of which were accepted by Police Scotland – is a call to consider implementing a policy of a “general presumption” among officers that stop-and-search encounters should be legislative.
There has been speculation the force will abandon stop-searches of under-18s if new legislation is introduced which allows officers to search for alcohol.
The force said it would only consider scrapping the policy if legislation could be used to “mitigate gaps” which may emerge.
In a Police Scotland report handed to justice secretary Michael Matheson, the force said there would now be a “presumption” against the use of consensual searches.
HM Inspector of Constabulary Derek Penman said: “We have recommended a move towards legislative stop and search which, combined with improvements in recording practices, training, supervision and audit, should more confidence in the use of stop and search.
“We believe the development of a statutory code of practice would establish clearly understood principles and safeguards for the public and would be particularly beneficial in providing clear and transparent guidance on the conduct of searches.
“Due to the lack of guidance and processes, we do not have confidence in the stop and search data held by Police Scotland. It should not be relied on to make informed decisions about future policy and practice in Scotland until an accurate baseline has been established.”
HMICS found that 70 per cent of searches recorded in Scotland are consensual but there are substantial variations across the country, with the practice “embedded” in some divisions.
The report said Police Scotland conducted 83 consensual searches of children aged 11 or under between 23 June and 31 December last year, after the policy was scrapped.
Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick, who chaired a working group looking at the issue, said: “We recognise that stop and search must be undertaken within a public consensus – reflecting our values of fairness, integrity and respect, have consideration of equalities and human rights at its core and meet the policing needs of Scotland’s communities.”
The Scottish Government said an independent advisory group would now examine the use of stop and search powers. It will be chaired by prominent solicitor advocate John Scott QC, convenor of the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland.
It will look at whether the permanent presumption against consensual stop and search for all ages goes far enough.
Mr Matheson said: “I welcome the announcement by Police Scotland today that they have introduced a presumption against consensual stop and searches for all age groups and have completely ended the practice involving children under 12.
“Stop and search can be a valuable tool in combating crime – but we must get the balance right between protecting the public and the rights of the individual.
“As such, it is vital that stop and search powers are used appropriately, and we need to make some key decisions on how such powers should be used. We need a clear, consistent approach which, as a society, we can all be agreed upon.”
Labour’s justice spokesman, Hugh Henry, added: “The report is a damning indictment of how Police Scotland has handled its stop and search activities.
“Today’s report throws doubt on the evidence given by senior officers. Rank and file officers believe stop and search targets exist, and Police Scotland must urgently clarify why that is the case.
“It beggars belief that the independent inspector can say that it does not have confidence in the stop and search data currently held by Police Scotland. This needs to be sorted out once and for all.”
But Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, a vocal critic of Police Scotland over stop and search, said the whole issue had become a “guddle” which lay at the door of the chief constable, Sir Stephen House.
He said: “Scottish ministers must make a statement to parliament setting out what they will do to get a grip of this.”
Control room closures have been ‘disaster’
THE closure of control rooms has been a “disaster” for Police Scotland and has led to non-emergency calls being “constantly lost”, it has been claimed.
Delegates at the Scottish Police Federation conference at Turnberry yesterday heard how a series of cost-cutting measures since the creation of the single force in 2013 had made life more difficult for rank-and-file officers.
During a debate on the impact of police reform, Sergeant Murray McKenzie said the force was struggling following the closure of a series of local control rooms.
“The supersize control rooms are a disaster because we’ve lost our local control rooms and their knowledge,” he told delegates.
“101 (non-emergency) calls are being constantly lost. It may work for banks trying to make call centres take your calls at a slow rate and charging a premium-rate number, but it’s not much good if you’re trying to report your house has been broken into.”
He said dozens of calls were being left “unactioned”, with the highest level of sickness in the force he could remember.
Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie last week urged Police Scotland to halt its programme of control room closures following reports of problems at Bilston Glen, which previously handled calls from the Lothians and the Borders.
Mr Rennie told First Minister’s Questions that the control room in Midlothian was struggling to cope following the closure of the Glenrothes control room on 17 March, leading to more than 1,000 calls being lost in a day and non-emergency calls taking up to 40 minutes to be answered.
The Glenrothes control room is one of five across Scotland scheduled to be closed as part of the reorganisation of the Scottish police service.
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