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Commissioner Jones and Andrew Mitchell clash over police stop and search powers

Commissioner Jones and Andrew Mitchell clash over police stop and search powers

🕔27.Jan 2014

West Midlands Police Commissioner Bob Jones is at risk of upsetting some of his Labour party colleagues – and a senior Tory MP – by continuing to back controversial ‘stop and search’ powers for police officers.

Mr Jones is resisting calls to abolish Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which allows police officers to search suspects even if there are no reasonable grounds for suspecting that a crime has taken place or is about to be committed.

The powers have been disproportionately used in the past against black and ethnic minority communities, and the continued use of Section 60 is under review by Home Secretary Theresa May.

Mr Jones wants stop and search to be used more sparingly, but is insisting the power must remain an important part of the West Midlands Police armory, particularly where there is “an immediate risk of violence and disorder”.

His stance may anger those on the left of the political spectrum. It also puts him on a collision course with Sutton Coldfield Tory MP Andrew Mitchell, who in an article in The Times called for an end to stop and search powers where grounds did not exist for suspecting a crime had been committed.

Mr Mitchell said he had come to the conclusion that “excessively broad” powers must be removed from the police following his experience in the so-called Plebgate affair in Downing Street.

Mr Mitchell was accused of verbally abusing officers guarding the exit from Downing Street. He admitted swearing and losing his temper, but denied calling police offices ‘plebs’.

One officer subsequently admitted pretending to witness the affair, and may face a prison sentence.

As a result of the affair, Mr Mitchell was forced to resign as government Chief Whip. He continues to fight through the courts to clear his name.

Mr Mitchell’s wife is a GP and in his article he described how staff at her surgery in London had told “countless stories of what happened to their families just because of the colour of their skin.”

He said: “As an elected politician I am ashamed of having not fully understood the truth of this before. I understand it now.

“Excessively broad stop and search powers, in particular, have proven not only ineffective but discriminatory.

“With figures showing ethnic minorities are far more likely to be singled out, it’s no surprise the confidence of these communities in British policing is so low.

“Enough is enough. It’s time we took responsibility and made stop and search without suspicion a thing of the past.”

Mr Jones responded to Mr Mitchell by issuing a statement expressing his faith in stop and search powers when used “proportionately”.

According to an Equality and Human Rights Commission report, West Midlands police were 29 times more likely in 2011-12 to use stop and search powers against BME communities than white people.

Mr Jones accepted there were problems and that Mr Mitchell’s comments had “some merit”. Section 60 powers had been over-used leading to a “negative impact on public perceptions”.

The police commissioner added: “However, there are circumstances where Section 60 remains a valuable tactic: where there is an immediate risk of violence and disorder, it makes sense to allow officers to search people for weapons, or use powers to make people remove face coverings.”

New rules adopted by the West Midlands force mean that approval for the use of Section 60 powers must be given on each occasion by an officer of Assistant Chief Constable or higher rank.

Mr Jones said: “The result has been a massive reduction in the use of Section 60 powers.  So far in 2013-14 there have been just eight authorisations.

“So, for example, there was a Section 60 authorisation during last summer’s EDL protest in Birmingham city centre, six have been for gang tensions that could have led to violence and one came as a result of spontaneous disorder at a football match.  Just a few years ago, 180 authorisations in a year would not have been unusual.

“This change is just one among many in the joint stop and search action plan that the Force developed with my office, which builds on existing work and what members of the public told us at the stop and search summit I held last year.

“As part of the action plan, officers across the force are receiving training on what reasonable grounds actually mean and there is much tighter supervision locally over the use of this important power.

“Later this year, we will introduce new recording and reporting mechanisms that will give more confidence about how stop and search is used.

“As a result of this work, early evidence suggests that use of mainstream ‘reasonable grounds’ stop and search is declining and yet a more intelligence led approach means that more searches are leading to arrests.”

A report last year by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary found that more than a quarter of police stop and searches across the country were unlawful because officers failed to show they had reasonable grounds to carry out the search.

The report, commissioned following the 2011 riots, warned that heavy-handed police tactics risked stirring up significant social unrest. Only nine per cent of Section 60 searches resulted in an arrest.

Home Secretary Theresa May said she feared police officers were wasting time detaining and questioning people who had not committed a crime.

Mrs May told the 2013 Conservative conference: “Stop and search is crucial in the daily fight against crime. But we cannot ignore public concern about whether it’s used fairly”.

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