Efforts to improve diversity among police officers are at risk of being thwarted by the disproportionate use of stop and search powers against black men, a senior policing watchdog has warned.
Police chiefs have previously said that a drive to restore officer numbers by 20,000 over the next three years would help “accelerate” plans to improve diversity in policing. At the end of March last year, 93.1% of police officers were white and 6.9% were from other ethnic groups.
Official figures show people who identify as black are nearly ten times more likely to be stopped than people who identify as white. However, in some force areas this is even higher; police in Dorset are 25 times more likely to stop black people than white people.
In his annual State of Policing report, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor, said: “One of the stated aims of the 20,000-officer uplift programme is to improve diversity in policing. But disproportionality in stop and search risks alienating some sections of society, particularly young black men.
“Many people who are stopped and searched have committed no crime. So efforts to improve diversity may be at risk of being thwarted by a well-intentioned but potentially misguided approach.”
The intervention comes at a time of increasing tension between police and BAME communities following the wave of protests triggered across the world by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes as he told them “I can’t breathe”.
Despite evidence that the tactic has only a marginal impact on reducing crime, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has made it easier for police forces to use the powers by lowering the seniority of officers able to authorise its use and reducing the threshold for suspicion that violence might occur.
Winsor said all forces should be monitoring stop and search data, inviting independent scrutiny and reviewing body-worn video footage.
“There may not be a strong evidence base for the efficacy of stop and search, but there is plenty of evidence of disproportionality in how the police use it,” he said.
“When confronted by an increase in knife crime, some police forces tend to carry out more stop and search.
“Undeniably, every time a police officer takes a knife from someone unlawfully carrying it in public, they may well have prevented another stabbing. And it would seem logical to conclude that the increased use of stop and search may deter potential offenders.
“However, the causes of knife crime are complex, needing a multi-agency response. The true efficacy of stop and search as a means of reducing knife crime is a matter of some difference among expert bodies.”
Recent analysis of fixed-penalty notices handed out under coronavirus rules revealed Black, Asian and minority ethnic people (BAME) in England were 54% more likely to be fined than white people. BAME people received as many as 2,218 of the 13,445 fixed-penalty notices (FPNs) under distancing regulations recorded from 27 March to 11 May, while white people were given about 7,865.
BAME people account for 15.5% of the population in England, according to 2016 population figures. BAME people received at least 22% of the coronavirus lockdown fines, according to NPCC data.
Winsor said the police service had “responded well” to the challenges of the pandemic.
“The initial and rare inconsistencies and mistakes over how the lockdown measures were applied were soon eclipsed by the commendable sensitivity and proportionality of officers towards their fellow citizens, through explanation and encouragement well before enforcement,” he said.
The Home Office said it had been clear that no one should be stopped and searched because of their race and that police use of the tactic must be fair and intelligence-led.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, said: “Our brave police officers have gone above and beyond during this pandemic – I’m proud to stand with them and am delighted to see the Inspectorate recognise their hard work in extraordinary circumstances.
“I’m committed to supporting our police, which is why we’ve already recruited over 3,000 of the 20,000 additional officers and have provided police with the biggest funding increase in a decade.”