Stop and search on the rise in Northern Ireland to little effect, data shows

Henry McDonald
Photograph: George Sweeney/Rex/Shutterstock

The Police Service of Northern Ireland is the only force in the UK where the use of stop and search powers are on the rise, new data has revealed.

But the first ever study of the PSNI’s stop and search powers found that very few arrests result from the policy.

As constabularies in Britain discuss the efficacy of stop and search on the streets of England and Wales as a response to rising knife crime, researchers claim there has been a dramatic 74% increase in PSNI officers using these powers in Northern Ireland since 2005 – a figure the regional police force disputes.

After Theresa May, then home secretary, ordered a reform and scaling down of stop and search policy in 2011 their numbers fell from 1.3m to 300,000 in England and Wales.

Related: Knife crime is a real problem, but stop and search isn't the solution | Katrina Ffrench

But figures from the survey of PSNI stop and search policy by criminologists at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) show that its increasing use in the region produces few arrests leading to potential prosecutions.

The latest statistics gathered by the criminologist John Topping found that rates of arrest for PSNI stop and searches were 7% for 2018-19. By contrast Topping’s new report shows that 17% of stop and searches in England and Wales resulted in arrests.

Before a policing conference at the university this Wednesday, which will be attended by the PSNI’s new chief constable, Simon Byrne, Topping said his force’s continued use of stop and search could provoke a new generation in Northern Ireland into street violence.

He said: “In view of the elevated rates of use by the PSNI, the poor outcomes in terms of lack of arrests and evidence that stop and search can destroy police-community relations, what are the police here using that power for?

“It is time for the PSNI to come into line with the reforms seen across the rest of the UK. Otherwise, we should not be surprised if the lessons of Brixton’s riots in 1981 or London in 2011 play out in the streets of Belfast in some shape or form.”

The QUB crime expert stressed that the rise in PSNI stop and searches, at a time when they have fallen in other UK constabularies’ areas, could not be solely put down to the continued dissident republican terror threat in Northern Ireland.

Topping pointed out that 80% of non-terrorist stop and searches in the region were carried out under the Misuse of Drugs Act in the region. He said: “This figure points to an unofficial policy of the targeting of young males in Northern Ireland for low level drug possession.”

Such a policy was criminalising young males in the region, Topping said.

On the overall effect of stop and search, he said: “Whether it’s Brixton or the Bogside in Derry, when there are long histories of negative police-community relations, stop and search only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes and perceptions of the police – especially when it is used at high levels but with little crime effect.”

But the PSNI said it disputed the survey’s figure of 74% claiming instead that the increase in stop and search was in fact 27% from 2005 to 2015.

Defending the PSNI’s policy of stop and search under the Misuse of Drugs Act, a spokesperson said: “PSNI officers have a power to stop and search individuals where they have reasonable grounds to suspect an offence. Since April 2019, 749 young people were stopped and searched with three-quarter being under misuse of drugs legislation.

“This is a proactive response to the increase in young people losing their lives whilst under the influence of drugs and a direct response to community concerns. There has been a 58% increase in drug-related deaths in the last 10 years so the PSNI must be proactive in this area in order to keep people safe.”