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Dangers in rise of stop-and-search

The growing use of stop-and-search by the police in Scotland has been causing concern for some time, inside and outside the force.

Some ordinary officers are worried that the strategy, and the targets associated with it, risk distracting them from more important priorities. Academics at Edinburgh University have added their voices to the concern in a new report which raises the prospect of civil disorder.

The idea of disorder caused by stop-and-search should not be dismissed lightly. As the report points out, riots seen in England, most recently in 2011, demonstrate the potential of police search tactics to spark trouble. To date, nothing similar has happened in Scotland, but this should not lead us to believe it could never happen here, particularly as the rate of stop-and-search in Scotland is much greater than it is in England.

Even if there is no civil disorder in Scotland, there is still legitimate concern about the effects the repeated, and growing, use of stop-and-search could have on the relationship between the police and the public. Police Scotland relies on the concept of policing by consent - as the forces it replaced once did - but that consent is at risk if innocent individuals are repeatedly searched.

In response, Police Scotland insists it does all it can to avoid this happening and that searches are targeted and intelligence-led. However, the report from Edinburgh University found that, in some areas, officers made extensive use of stop-and-search without reasonable suspicion and that this impacts disproportionately on younger age groups.

Such non-statutory searches officially happen with consent but the police are under no obligation to inform the person being searched that they have the right to refuse that consent. And in the case of children and young teenagers, there is another concern. In the first three months of Police Scotland alone, 23,000 children under the age of 15 were stopped and searched, but to what extent were they really giving informed consent to the process?

All these reservations have to be balanced against the proven effectiveness of stop-and-search in preventing crime. A large proportion of searches yield a positive result, including weapons and drugs, and among victims of crime such as Mary Stark, whose son Sean was murdered in Fife in 2009, there is support for stop-and-search as a way of reducing the number of knives on the street.

However, the dangers of using stop-and-search over-enthusiastically remain, particularly when it is not intelligence-led and the person involved is under no reasonable suspicion. Serious mistakes were made with the policy in England and Wales and, even though Police Scotland's support for stop-and-search appears undimmed, the force must be careful not to go too far down the same path.

Stop-and-search, used with restraint, can be an effective tool in crime prevention; used with too much enthusiasm, it risks undermining the morale of officers and alienating the people they police.

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