31st January 2020

By Professor Mike Hough, Birkbeck University of London 

This blog is based on academic work completed by Prof Hough along with colleagues listed at the bottom of the article.

In the run-up to December’s election, law and order re-emerged as a hot topic. The political parties entered a bidding war for extra police officers, and the Conservatives promised longer court sentences – mainly by extending the proportion of time served in custody – and to relax the restrictions on police powers of stop-and-search. The Government has begun to publish its sentencing proposals, focussing on terrorist offences, but has yet to sketch out plans for stop-and-search. It is timely, therefore, to draw attention to some of our recently published research findings on this issue, comparing teenagers’ experience of this tactic in Scotland and England. This clearly suggest that encouraging the police to make greater use of stop-and-search in response to violent crime could be counterproductive.

My colleagues and I were responsible for organising fieldwork and analysis in England and Scotland for the third sweep of the International Self-Report Delinquency Study. This survey asks teenagers about their experience of crime and their attitudes to policing and justice. In the four cities covered in Britain (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham and Sheffield), we asked teenagers about their experience of stop-and-search, and (in common with the international sample) about their trust in the police, their sense of police legitimacy and their involvement in crime. (By legitimacy here, we are referring to people’s sense of moral obligation to comply with police authority, grounded in their belief that the police share their moral values). We found some very significant findings about the impact of stop-and-search on trust in the police, and judgements about legitimacy.

Our fieldwork took place in 2014/15, at a time when use of stop-and-search had been increasing rapidly in Scotland, and declining in England under pressure from the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, and from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary. Research had shown that stop-and-search rates in Scotland in 2013 were seven times higher than in England and Wales. The ISRD survey picked up this trend: our Scottish teenagers reported higher rates than those in England. Scottish teenagers had worse experiences of stop-and-search: they rated police who carried out the stop-and-search stop as less polite, less fair and less professional than south of the border. They also reported lower levels of trust in the police, and scored the police lower on legitimacy. Although we cannot prove a causal connection between the higher stop rates and poorer ratings of the police, the high rates of stop-and-search in Scotland provide the obvious explanation.

We carried out extensive multivariate statistical modelling to disentangle the relationships between experience of stops, trust in the police, perceived legitimacy of the police and involvement in offending. We found clear positive relationships between young people’s level of trust in the police and the degree of legitimacy they confer on the police, and negative relationships between perceived legitimacy and involvement in crime. Experience of stop-and-search was – unsurprisingly – associated with involvement in crime – because one would expect the police to focus their attention on known or likely offenders. However, our analysis suggested that reduced trust in the police and lower ratings of legitimacy could also result in involvement in crime – implying that stop-and-search tactics could trigger crime, and not simply be a response to it.

This research is important for two reasons. First it demonstrates that principles of procedural justice are no less applicable to teenagers than they are to adults. Fair and respectful treatment by the police is clearly as important to young people as it is to adults. The ISRD study is the first large-scale international study to show this – and the findings were replicated across the other 26 participating countries, not just in the UK. Secondly, it offers strong circumstantial evidence that heavy use of stop-and-search can be counterproductive, reducing teenagers’ trust in the police and the legitimacy that they confer on the police, and increasing the likelihood of involvement in crime. Put simply, overuse of the tactic can prompt defiance, rather than compliance with the law.

Our evidence for saying this isn’t totally rock-solid, as it is very hard to nail down cause and effect beyond doubt, and a single research study rarely produces absolutely clinching evidence. However, we think we have made a good, persuasive case. Clearly more research is needed to establish whether the relationships we have identified are indeed causal ones. Since our fieldwork, Police Scotland has made impressive progress in reducing their use of the tactic, and further comparative analysis is an obvious next-step.

We are not saying that the police should avoid using stop-and-search. However they clearly need to take account of the costs of stop-and-search – in terms of damage to trust in the police and police authority – as well as the gains in arrests and detections that result from well-targeted and well-conducted stop-and-searches. For the present, it would be rash for politicians to relax the controls that apply to police stop-and-search in England and Wales and to encourage the police to use the tactic more. Initiatives of this sort might play well with the press and the public, given understandable anxieties about levels of knife crime and violence. But the Scottish experience provides some important and cautionary learning.

*This blog was originally published on the Transform Justice website on 28/01/2020.

Murray, K., McVie, S., Farren, D., Herlitz, L., Hough, M. and Norris, P. (2020). ‘Procedural justice, compliance with the law and police stop-and-search: a study of  young people in England and Scotland.’ Policing and Society.  DOI: 10.1080/10439463.2020.1711756