Police Stop & Search Powers: Understanding Nature & Extent of Adversarial Contact Between PSNI and the Public

Dr John Topping (QUB) –

Governed primarily under the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 (PACE), the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) use of stop and search powers have remained as a consistent – and growing – power over the past decade.  Analysis of most recent data shows the powers are used 68% more than ten years ago; and at a greater rate than any other police service in the United Kingdom at 18 per 1000 of population, compared to 9 per 1000 in Scotland, and 7 per 1000 in England & Wales.  In this regard, stop and search is the most common form of adversarial contact with the public.

PSNI state the powers are ‘an operational tool used to prevent, detect and investigate crime as well as to bring offenders to justice’.  Yet empirical evidence demonstrates stop and search has a minimal – and in some cases negligible – effect on the prevention or detection of crime.  This can be read in conjunction with policy shifts which have resulted in a 70% drop in use of the powers over the past five years in England/Wales – which encompasses a 16% arrest rate.  For PSNI, the average arrest rate sits at 6%, with 8 out of their 11 districts below that level.  It is also notable that children (17 and under) remain a significant focus of the powers.  Between 2010/11 – 2016/17, over 28,000 children have been subject to stop and search, with 15-17-year-old males five times more likely to be stopped proportional to numbers in the population.  Lack of public data also means PSNI’s use of stop and search, in terms of compliance with section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Human Rights Act 1998 or their own Code of Ethics remains difficult to ascertain. Focused primarily on PACE-type powers, this presentation explores the key issues surrounding PSNI’s use of stop and search, raising questions related to use and oversight for all the policing institutions in the country. 

This Seminar took place on 9th May 2018

Policy Briefing