Is ‘Stop and Search’ an Effective Policing Tool for Children and Young People?

27 October 2017 Commissioner's Blog
Police cars with Sirens on

The Police Service for Northern Ireland is quoted by The Detail, in their investigation in to Stop and Search (March, 2017) saying,

“the PSNI operates to keep people safe,

“We do that through detection (arrest, prosecution) but quite often we prefer prevention and deterrence to stop crimes or harm to people occurring in the first place.

“the fact is that arrest is not necessarily a successful outcome for PSNI nor is it the only successful outcome.

“In many incidents we stop and search people, and in particular young people, to try and deal with the real issues of drug misuse and underage drinking.

“We also aim to prevent young people from carrying offensive weapons or carrying materials, for example fireworks, which may encourage them to get involved in anti-social behaviour.” 

The PSNI have also said that new officers are being taught that stop and search is an opportunity for engagement.  The evidence suggests differently, engagement with young people has to be built on respect, which includes civility not the assumption that the child is “up to no good”.

I cannot reconcile the statement that stop and search is an effective policing tool achieving all the things outlined above with the limited information we have, either through published PSNI statistics or through statistics which have been discovered by The Detail’s investigative journalism.

There is no evidence that these operations keep young people safe.

Let’s look at the statistics…

The Detail found that in three years (2013/14, 2014/15 and 2015/16), 14,671 children (U18’S) were stopped and searched. 780 were arrested, that is a rate of 5.3%

That is just arrests, not convictions (what happened following the arrest – were they found guilty?) or other disposals (e.g. cautions).  We have no publicly available information with regards to conviction or disposal rates, information which is available in England.

What are the effects?

How police engage with young people in routine operations affects how they view the service and how they talk about it. Ask any young person from certain communities what they think about the PSNI and many of them will talk about how they feel marginalised because of their age or are aggrieved about being persistently and, in their view, unfairly stopped and searched. This applies not only when they are the subject of a stop and search but also as a witness when an adult who is accompanying them is subject to a search. ‘Rudeness’ and ‘disrespect’ are common complaints from many young people with regards to how police undertake these routine operations.

Stop and Search – top of our Justice agenda

My particular concerns about stop and search are:

  • The disproportionate number of Children and Young People who are stopped and searched
  • Its effectiveness as a policing tool
  • The detrimental impact it has on young people’s confidence in policing
  • The lack of data tracing through to disposal or arrest and then to conviction.

While it is the job of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland to investigate individual complaints made against police officers, it is my job to address issues which significantly impact on the rights of children and young people, and policing is one such issue.

Stop and Search remains top of the agenda and we will continue to challenge the PSNI and the Policing Board to examine the impact of stop and search on children and young people.

In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child made a specific recommendation to Government saying it should “Regularly collect, analyse and publish data relating to the use of stop and search on children, disaggregated by age, sex, disability, geographic location, ethnic origin and socioeconomic background.”

In the past year alone, I have met with senior police officers in West Belfast following media reports about a child being questioned by a police officer following the stop and search of an accompanying adult.  At the meeting it was made clear that children should be protected from such processes and the PSNI gave assurances that all protocols relating to questioning of children will be followed.

In March of this year, I was interviewed by The Detail in relation to the story mentioned above and made a speech at an event at Queen’s university “Police Stop and Search Powers – A Conversation on Delivery, Experiences & Accountability in Northern Ireland” – you can read that speech here.

I have raised the experiences of children who are subjects of, and witnesses to, stop and search at many other meetings and presentations to the PSNI, including the Chief Constable.

I await any review of the introduction of body worn cameras which should make sure all operations are undertaken in accordance with regulations and that the protection and best interests of children are the paramount consideration. I also await and will continue to challenge the PSNI and Policing Board on the collection, analysis and publication of clear data relating to the stop and search and stop and question of children and young people as recommended by the UN Committee.

Is Stop and Search an Effective Policing Tool for Children and Young People?

This answer, quite clearly, is – no there is no evidence that it is!