Stop and search: are we missing the point?

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Leda Basile
Writer

There has been a long-standing controversy surrounding Police Scotland’s stop and search methods. In May 2017, propelled by the intense criticisms that originated from previous stop and search tactics, a new code of practice was established. This new code constituted an end to the questionable practice of “consensual searches” – that is, searches that could formerly have occurred without any legal basis – and seemed to herald a more comprehensive and considerate approach to the whole procedure. It is, therefore, acutely disappointing (yet, not the least bit surprising) that said progress still remains largely elusive.

Between the months of April 2018 and June 2019, over 3,000 children under the age of 15 have been stopped and searched by Scottish police officers. This frankly alarming statistic is made even worse by the revelation that out of all such incidents, 62% resulted inconclusive. In 2017, justice secretary Michael Matheson labelled the ability of police to stop and search suspects a “valuable tool in combating crime,” despite admitting it could be termed “an intrusion into liberty and privacy”. The code of practice states that searches must be based on “reasonable suspicion” that the subject is in possession of an illegal item, and yet despite such guidelines, only just over a third of results in the last year have supported police suspicion.

I find it difficult, then, to be faced with instances such as the one in Clackmannanshire, where a seven-year-old girl was stopped and searched for drugs, and not feel frustrated. Police Scotland insists that the stop and search tactic is efficient, and indeed it has yielded good results: data shows that 45 children (1.4%) who were stopped were carrying bladed objects, and 14 (0.4%) were found to be possessing drugs. However, these benefits seem minuscule compared to the sheer damage that this policy has the potential to inflict. If there is anything that these recent events demonstrate, it is the fallibility of stop and searches, so is it worth continuing to subject children to them? Should such methods even be employed without proper consideration of the effects they will have on young people?

Railing against police methods is hardly an original endeavour, yet, unable to absorb the information above without feeling a palpable sense of unease, I feel no other reaction is justified. Stop and searches – particularly when aimed at children – are antiquated and harmful. As pointed out by recent findings, the tactics’ only underlying achievement is not the effective prevention of crime, but the criminalisation of those it targets. It is inherently accusatory as a strategy, and that is the last thing children should be encountering, particularly those already vulnerable enough to be in situations involving illegal substances or weapons.

It is true that there are many structures in place to provide support for young people in Scotland, but that does not make policies like this one any less sinister. Continued use of strategies like stop and searches will do nothing but further distance the youth from law enforcement. Instead of being viewed as potential protectors, the police and their already-problematic image are being additionally tarnished. Such a tactic generates the perception that the police are not on their side; this is psychologically toxic for children, breeding only feelings of distrust and pessimism with regards to law and order.

Of course, this discussion cannot be had without shining a light on the subtle prejudices that seem to be permeating this policy. 81% of the cases recorded in these 15 months have involved males. That means that out of all the children under the age of 15 that were stopped and searched, over 2,500 have been young boys. This is demonstrative of the insidious propensity to criminalise young men in Scotland. Despite many fruitful attempts to improve Scotland’s record, the stereotypes of drugs and knife crimes still saturate the narrative. Whether or not we like to admit it, the “young male hooligan” is stubbornly embedded in our view of the youth and crime. Until we weed it out of our mindset, no policy adjustment or bureaucratic brush-up will truly change the nature of police strategies.

In fact, it almost feels futile to engage with the facts presented to us because even such consideration misses the point. The notion that the stop and search tactic is flawed in the nature it is carried out – that perhaps it is only incompetent police work that accounts for such disappointing results – is inaccurate. The problem is the very purpose of the policy: in both its practise and reasoning, it does not fit with the contemporary standard for dealing with crime. It is confrontational and discriminatory in nature and fails those it is supposed to be trying to protect.

I must state that the point of this article is not to simply rant about police statistics, nor is it to demonise police officers. Nevertheless, facts are facts, and they remain both unchanged and disturbing. The successes of stopping and searching children are pathetically small compared to the failures, irrespective of any attempts to obscure them with paltry excuses of necessity. It would therefore be wrong, in my opinion, to disregard the difficult truths brought to light for the purpose of labelling the stop and search tactics successful. Particularly when I find it difficult to even justify their continued existence.