Rose Fitzpatrick: Police need powers to do job

Stop and search a 'vital deterrent in the prevention of crime'. Picture: John Devlin
Stop and search a 'vital deterrent in the prevention of crime'. Picture: John Devlin
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Officers will not waver on keeping people safe, and that requires stop and search, writes Police Scotland’s Rose Fitzpatrick

Much time and space has been given over recent months to the policing tactic of stop and search. Few have argued against its use under legislation, however its non-legislative or consensual use has split public opinion and if we are to continue to work with the support of the communities we serve, we must seek consensus on the best way forward that continues to meet our shared focus on keeping people safe.

Last week, the Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Sir Stephen House, committed to exploring alternatives to the use of non-legislative or consensual stop searches, where police officers ask individuals for their consent to be searched. We welcome the debate which places the safety and wellbeing of all communities at its heart but we will not compromise the safety of the public, particularly young people, as a consequence of creating gaps in our ability to keep them safe.

The use of stop and search has contributed over the years to the detection of knives, drugs and weapons and has acted as a vital deterrent in the prevention of crime, particularly violent crime and antisocial behaviour. It has also ensured the removal of alcohol from situations where the potential risk to the health and wellbeing of people, particularly young people, is well documented.

Every year, we have consulted with local communities about the policing priorities that matter to them in the places where they live. Tackling violent crime and antisocial behaviour repeatedly appear as high community concerns.

The principles of policing by consent are threaded throughout Scottish policing. Many of our officers work in the communities where they live. Working with communities to tackle their specific concerns, seeking their continued support in preventing and tackling crime, remain at the heart of everything we do. For many of our officers, it would simply be unacceptable to walk away from a group of people, in a situation where they believe that perhaps later that evening, even just one of those individuals might be exposed to risk, vulnerable either to becoming a victim of crime or to taking part in it. The impact alcohol has in these situations, particularly with our young people, only increases that risk. As one officer recently described it, it would be a dereliction of our duty not to protect and preserve life if we walked away from those situations simply because we did not have the legislative powers to intervene.

So what’s the alternative? Our shared success in preventing and reducing crime is achieved only in partnership with the communities we serve as well as with the many voluntary groups, public and private sector partners we work with everyday. The impact of alcohol on individuals and their families, on our communities and on the services who support them is significant. It is a shared challenge and one we will not shy away from.

Following debate about the use of stop and search as a policing tactic, both the Scottish Police Authority and HMICS have carried out reviews and we have just completed a six month pilot in Fife. More comprehensive training for police officers, closer work with affected communities, engaging the parents and guardians of young people and smarter use of evidence and intelligence were all put into effect with positive support from local partners including Fife Council and local communities.

During the period, 5996 searches were carried out, 21 per cent of these with positive results for drugs, alcohol, stolen property, offensive weapons and firearms. A third of these (32 per cent) were carried out under legislation and 68 per cent were consensual. The use of social media channels to highlight the results received positive local feedback and helped raise awareness in the community of our policing approach.

Contrary to some public perception, these are not random searches carried out disproportionately across the population. In the Fife pilot, informed intelligence meant you were most likely to be stopped if you were male, white and Scottish and aged either between 30 and 39, closely followed by those of the same profile aged between 16 and 19 in certain places on days and at times relevant to crime and disorder occurring.

Part of the pilot involved trialling direct communication with parents following contact with young people. Letters were sent out to parents by our officers and those who responded were positive about the engagement. Officers also visited older children in schools and colleges to explain the purpose of the activity and get feedback to inform future training. The positive feedback from this is now being looked at elsewhere in the country. While this pilot is now subject to independent evaluation, all feedback is being incorporated into the work of our National Stop Search Unit, set up last year with the aim of developing training and guidance for officers and ensuring a consistency of approach.

The debate about the use and impact of stop and search is to be welcomed, particularly its contribution to the prevention of crime and violence in our communities. The decision to review measures to replace the current use of consensual stop and search was taken against a backdrop of a record drop in crime, including violent crime, our commitment to the proportionate use of police powers and findings from the Fife pilot. By having this debate, we must now reach agreement on a way forward that ensures the confidence and co-operation of our communities, that continues to keep people safe and, if necessary, is backed by legislation.

Rose Fitzpatrick is Police Scotland’s Deputy Chief Constable Local Policing.