The police use of stop and search: it matters

Officers at checkpoints are bound to make impartial decisions based on the facts and liable to explain those decisions

The police use of stop and search: it matters


The purpose of the policing includes upholding the law and maintaining the peace. Stop and search policy is helping to achieve this goal where used appropriately and proportionately. If used unnecessarily, unlawfully and/or in an unfair manner, however, it may cause alarm or distress to members of the public and have negative consequences in the longer term that make the police’s job harder. For example, the incident happened in the capital city of Islamabad where a young man lost his life at the checkpoint and in fact it is a continuation of such incidents happening often and on. Using the powers appropriately means acting lawfully and in a manner which is proportionate to the circumstances. There are principles have to be followed by the officers posted at checkpoints. The foremost is, they must have reasonable grounds to use the powers, and use them without any bias against or in favor of any person or group. They must not act more than is necessary to achieve a lawful aim, and must follow the correct and proper processes.

Appropriate use of stop and search also means officers adopting a ‘procedural justice’ approach, that is, making decisions fairly and treating people respectfully. Officers at checkpoints are bound to make impartial decisions based on the facts and liable to explain those decisions. They are bound to give people an opportunity to tell their side of the story and listen to them. Above all, police have to demonstrate that they are trustworthy. They have to show their professional responsibility by treating people with respect and dignity.

Stop and search can play an important role in the detection and prevention of crime and using the powers fairly makes them more effective. The lawful and proportionate use of stop and search by officers, in line with procedural justice, should help to maintain public trust, police legitimacy and policing by consent. Such encounters may also be less confrontational, safer for everyone involved and less likely to result in a complaint because procedural justice can have a positive influence on people’s attitudes.

In general, when members of the public trust officers to make fair decisions and treat them with respect, they are more likely to see the police as legitimate. Legitimacy, in turn, encourages people to cooperate with the police and not to break the law. While the public expect the police to take action against crime and disorder, and may be reassured by officers being present and visibly proactive. The appropriate use of stop and search is likely to maintain rather than increase the level of public trust. In contrast, inappropriate use or misuse is very likely to have negative consequences and a general mistrust appeared in society against the police actions.

The evidence suggests that the policy of stop and search is showing dividends as the incidence of terrorism are reducing with the passage of time and the overall criminal pattern is also reduced including kidnapping and car snatching etc. This situation has formed public support for stop and search. But, surely this support is conditional on how stop and search is targeted, how it is used by officers, officers’ attitudes and the reasons they give for exercising their powers. The ability to hold the police to account may also be important for building public support.

There is also a possibility that by simply increasing stop and search, without using an intelligence-led approach, is unlikely to reduce crime. It needs to be balanced against the cost to police resources and its potentially detrimental effect on police legitimacy. This approach of excessive use of stop and search will tend to be less productive and there is a possibility of its abuse. Any misuse of the powers is likely to be harmful not only to policing but will lead to mistrust of the police. The police have powers to stop and question you at any time, they can search you depending on the situation. They can ask you questions like, what you are doing? Why you are in an area or where you are going? Police have the authority to stop and search you if they have ‘reasonable suspicion’ or ground for carrying illegal drugs, a weapon, a stolen property or something which could be used to commit a crime. A person can only be stopped and searched without reasonable grounds if it has been approved by a senior police officer on the grounds or suspicion that serious violence could take place or the person is in a specific location or area. But this search is permitted with few conditions and the officer conducting the search must tell his name and police station, what he is expected to find, a valid reason of stop and search (if something is hidden), why the police officer is legally allowed to search you and he is having a record of the search. A police officer can ask someone to take off coat, jacket or gloves on suspicion. Even the police might ask the suspect to take off other clothes and anything the suspect is wearing for religious reasons like a veil or turban, and if they do, they must take you somewhere out of public view. If the officer wants to remove more than a jacket and gloves they must be the same sex as the suspect.

The incident happened in the capital involving the death of a person is clearly a demonstration of the fact that police is failing to obey rules to prevent abuse of their stop and search powers. This has developed a sense of insecurity among people and government should initiate steps to legislate to regularize the operating procedures of stop and search. In first place, the police department should come up themselves to introduce reforms with immediate effects. The reforms should be introduced to eliminate illegal stop and search happening now and then across the country. Each encounter must therefore be lawful as well as necessary and proportionate to the circumstances. Officers should be trained specifically for such encounters enabling them to apply the codes and training provided to them to actively consider, on a case-by-case basis, whether stop and search is the best response to the particular circumstances they are facing. Officers must be trained to use their options for handling the situation while conducting stop and search lawfully, necessary and proportionate to those circumstances?

Police could introduce body worn cameras for officers conducting stop and search. The encounters of stop and search are heading towards a policy or becoming the tactics of fear and humiliation for public. The presence of body worn cameras will make the officer more confident while conducting search and at the same time the person presenting himself for search will feel safe and trust the consequences of the output of the encounter. The abuse of stop and search powers are tarnishing the image of police and undermining the good work of police as they have lost their precious lives during these stop and search encounters on many occasions and saved the lives of innocent Pakistanis.

 

The writer can be reached at malikmasud@hotmail.com

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