What is stop and search? Section 60 powers explained, UK statistics - as Priti Patel lifts police restrictions

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The wider use of stop and search is controversial due to concerns it disproportionately affects black and minority ethnic communities

The Home Secretary is permanently lifting restrictions placed on police in the use of stop and search powers.

Priti Patel announced the changes under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in a letter to police forces on Monday (16 May), saying they are part of the government’s strategy to tackle violent crime.

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The law gives police officers the right to search people without reasonable grounds when serious violence is expected (Photo: Getty Images)The law gives police officers the right to search people without reasonable grounds when serious violence is expected (Photo: Getty Images)
The law gives police officers the right to search people without reasonable grounds when serious violence is expected (Photo: Getty Images) | Getty Images

What is stop and search?

Section 60 powers give police officers the right to search people without reasonable grounds in an area when serious violence is expected.

It also gives officers the right to look for weapons before they can be used, or those used in a recent attack.

A police officer does not always have to be in uniform to stop and question you, but if they are not wearing uniform they must show you their warrant card. A police community support officer (PCSO) must be in uniform to stop and search.

A police officer has powers to stop and search you if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect you are carrying:

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  • illegal drugs
  • a weapon
  • stolen property
  • something which could be used to commit a crime, such as a crowbar

You can only be stopped and searched without reasonable grounds if it has been approved by a senior police officer, which may happen if it is suspected that:

  • serious violence could take place
  • you are carrying a weapon or have used one
  • you are in a specific location or area

Before you are searched, a police officer must tell you:

  • their name and police station
  • what they expect to find, such as drugs
  • the reason they want to search you
  • why they are legally allowed to search you
  • that you can have a record of the search and if this is not possible at the time, how you can get a copy

A police officer can ask you to remove your coat, jacket or gloves, and may ask that you take off other clothes and anything you are wearing for religious reasons, such as a veil or turban. If they do this, they must take you somewhere out of public view.

If an officer wants you to remove more than a jacket and gloves they must be the same sex as you.

What do the new changes mean?

The easing of conditions on the use of the tactics under Section 60 effectively undoes limitations put in place in 2014 by then Home Secretary Theresa May.

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The now permanent change extends the length of time police stop and search powers can be in force from 15 to 24 hours.

The period a Section 60 can be extended to is now 48 hours, whereas it was previously limited to 39 hours.

The rank at which officers are able to authorise the deployment of stop and search has been lowered from senior officer to inspector, while a superintendent can now extend the authorisation.

Authorising officers now only need to anticipate that serious violence “may” occur rather than “will” occur, and no longer need to publicly communicate authorisations to communities in advance.

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Ms Patel said: “The devastating impact of knife crime on families who have lost their loved one is unbearable. No one should have to endure the pain and suffering of the victims of these appalling crimes and we have a responsibility to them to do everything in our power to prevent future tragedies.

“I stand wholeheartedly behind the police so that they can build on their work to drive down knife crime by making it easier for officers to use these powers to seize more weapons, arrest more suspects and save more lives.”

She said the use of stop and search has increased by around 85% since 2019 and has contributed to some 50,000 weapons being taken off the streets.

The move coincides with the launch of Operation Sceptre, described as a week of “intensive action” by police forces in England and Wales to tackle knife crime.

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The government has also launched a consultation to make it easier for officers to search known knife carriers.

It comes after the introduction of Serious Violence Reduction Orders under the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act passed last month, which are intended to make such checks easier.

The Home Office rolled back restrictions on the Section 60 tactics in 2019 as part of a bid to crack down on knife crime.

Why are stop and search laws controversial?

The wider use of stop and search is controversial because of concerns it disproportionately affects black and minority ethnic communities.

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Campaign groups have previously warned that relaxing the restrictions could compound discrimination in the UK.

In the year to March 2021, black people were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, while Asian people were two-and-a-half times more likely.

A recent report by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) watchdog urged an overhaul of the use of stop and search powers to tackle the disproportionate impact the measures have on ethnic minority groups.

The report included one case study of a black boy who was searched more than 60 times between the ages of 14 and 16, sometimes more than once in the same day.

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Labour’s shadow policing minister Sarah Jones said: “This is a rehashed announcement rather than a new plan to tackle violent crime. The police were already given these wider powers in 2019.

“Under this government, knife crime recorded by the police has returned to pre-pandemic levels, 7,000 police have been cut from neighbourhood teams, and the charge rate for violent offences has more than halved in the last five years.

“Stop and search is an important police tool for tackling knife crime but it must always be based on evidence and used proportionately.”

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