Police forces are up to 28 times more likely to use stop-and-search powers against black people than white people and may be breaking the law, new research from the official human rights body reveals.
The research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) looked at police stop powers where officers do not require suspicion of involvement in a crime, known as section 60 stops.
The power is used most by the Metropolitan police, which carried out three-quarters of the stops between 2008-11, some 258,000 in total. The next heaviest user was Merseyside with 40,940 stops. Some forces barely use the power.
Thus what the Metropolitan police does can skew the national picture and the data shows a Met officer is about 30 times more likely to use section 60 to stop a black person than a colleague outside London.
The figures show how often black Britons experience stop and search through section 60 alone, never mind the more commonly used other stop-and-search powers. The EHRC found that in 2008-09, the Met stopped 68 out of every 1,000 black people in its area. This fell to 32.8 per 1,000 by 2010-11. In the rest of England, the figure was down to 1.2 stops per 1,000 black people by 2010-11.
Section 60 of the 1994 Public Order Act was introduced to target originally brought in to tackle people going to illegal raves. It gave police the power, if they feared violence or disorder, to stop and search suspects at a specific time and place.
Most stops in England and Wales require an officer to have “reasonable suspicion” that someone is involved in crime. Section 60 gives an officer maximum discretion and privately police fear its wide-ranging nature and the discretion it gives officers, plus the allegations it is being abused, may lead the courts to strike it down – as happened with section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which had to be reformed after the courts ruled its provision allowing stops without suspicion was too wide-ranging.
The EHRC notes that while the overall use of section 60 had fallen, excessive use of the power against ethnic minorities, known as racial disproportionality, had continued or even increased. The report found a rise in the percentage of ethnic minorities among those stopped under section 60 between 2008-11, from 51% to 64%.
The commission said the police may be breaching their legal responsibilities, known as the public-sector equality duty: “Any continuing and serious disproportionate use of these powers against ethnic minorities may indicate that the police and Home Office are not complying with their public-sector duties obligations.”
The worst rates of racial disproportionality were outside London, according to the EHRC. An officer in the West Midlands was 28 times more likely to stop and search a black person than a white person, in the Greater Manchester force the figure was 21 times, in the Met 11 times, and for British Transport police the figure was 31 times.
Nationally, the EHRC said black people were 37 times more likely to be stopped and searched under section 60 than white people in 2010-11. From 2008 to 2011, the racial disproportionality worsened for the Met and West Midlands forces, while Greater Manchester’s disproportionality rate in 2008-9 was 44.9 times greater, which had been halved three years later.
Racial disproportionality meant an officer was 10 times more likely to stop Asian Britons than a white person, with the worst offender being West Midlands police.
The EHRC said through section 60 alone ethnic minorities underwent more than 100,000 excessive searches over 2008-11.
Figures also show that section 60 may be ineffective in fighting crime. According to the report: “In England as a whole, only 2.8% of [section] 60 stops and searches resulted in an arrest in 2008-09 and this decreased to 2.3% in 2010-11. Of these, fewer than one in five arrests were for offensive weapons.”
The fact that arrest rates are similar for black and white Britons suggests problems in how police use the power, the EHRC said: “The lack of a significant difference does not prove that black people are not inappropriately targeted.”
Simon Woolley, a commissioner at the EHRC, said: “Our research shows black youths are still being disproportionately targeted, and without a clear explanation as to why many in the community will see this as racial profiling.
“Moreover, police data itself questions the effectiveness of this practice. Some forces are using 200 or 300 stops before arresting an individual over a weapon.
“We are encouraged at least that the Met seek to review the practice with a clear objective that avoids the crude measure of racial profiling and focuses on intelligence-led policing.”
The Met is being threatened with a legal challenge over allegations that it discriminates in its use of section 60 stop and search. The commission has previously said it believes the Met’s use of section 60 is unlawful.
The Met said it was reforming its use of the power and would aim to make it more focused on tackling violence and reduce the number of stops carried out.
However, in a statement, the Met’s deputy commissioner, Craig Mackey, who speaks on stop-and-search issues for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: “Chief officers support the use of stop and search as these powers are critical in our efforts to tackle knife, gun and gang crimes.
“It is important that there is a debate about the effectiveness of these police tactics as we seek to balance the impact of powers, like section 60, on our communities with the need to protect communities from serious crime.
“The police service is firmly committed to working, both locally and nationally, to ensure all sections of society have confidence in the police service and we look forward to working with EHRC to better understand the evidence shown in this report and how it can influence our decision making.”
Eight forces did not provide information to the EHRC or claimed exemption under the Freedom of Information Act; they are Avon and Somerset, Cleveland, Essex, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, Sussex, West Yorkshire and Wiltshire.