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Stop and search sees "disproportionate use in Somerset"

Avon and Somerset Police must urgently review its use of “stop and search” powers, a government inspector has said.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams made her recommendation in the latest assessment of the force by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICRFS).

The fifth annual police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy (PEEL) assessment for Avon and Somerset Police found the force operates with ‘outstanding’ efficiency and is ‘good’ at reducing crime and keeping people safe. 

The extent to which the force treats the public and its workforce legitimately was also rated ‘good’ in the PEEL assessment for 2018/19.

However, HMI Williams urged the force to conduct a rigorous review of its use of stop and search powers because of “high levels” of disproportionate use in Somerset.

The statutory powers allow police officers to stop and search someone to prevent and detect crime, and to avoid unnecessary arrest in circumstances where a quick search might confirm or eliminate an officer’s suspicions.

According to the HMICRFS, use of these powers is lawful if an officer has reasonable grounds for suspicion that a person is in possession of a stolen or prohibited item, or controlled drugs, or if a person is in an area where serious violence is anticipated. 

“[Avon and Somerset] Constabulary has more of an understanding of its use of stop and search powers,” HMI Williams’s PEEL report said. 

“Nonetheless, it should carry out a rigorous review to understand the high levels of disproportionality relating to stop and search that are continuing to occur in Somerset.”

Somerset was “in sharp contrast” to Avon, where levels of disproportionality are “much lower”, the report said.

The inspectorate recommended in 2017 that all police forces should monitor, analyse and address disparities in the use of stop and search powers.

Avon and Somerset Police has complied with “some” of this recommendation, according to the PEEL report.

The report praised the force’s record protecting vulnerable people, its use of technology such as Facebook and online forums to connect with the public, its work with the Muslim community, and its perseverence gaining funding for tackling knife crime.

In her observations, HMI Williams wrote: “I am very pleased with the performance of Avon and Somerset Constabulary.

“The constabulary is good at preventing crime and anti-social behaviour. It is also good at investigating crime and tackling serious and organised crime. It identifies and responds well to incidents involving vulnerable people and works effectively with other agencies to protect them.

“The constabulary is ambitious in its planning for the future and wants to be at the forefront of innovative practice. I am very impressed with its use of technology to understand changing demand. It uses this information very well to influence its development of finance and workforce plans for the future.

“Senior leaders ensure that the workforce understands the importance of treating the public and each other with fairness and respect. The constabulary continues to uphold an ethical culture and promote the standards of professional behaviour it expects.

“Overall, I congratulate Avon and Somerset Constabulary for its excellent performance over the past year. I am confident that it is well equipped for this to continue.”

Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Sue Mountstevens, who is not seeking re-election to the role in May, said: “I am pleased that this report recognises the hard work, determination and effort of Avon and Somerset staff and officers. 

“I hope local people can see that the Constabulary continues to take steps in the right direction to offer the best police service for the communities it serves.

“Protecting the most vulnerable from harm is a priority in my Police and Crime Plan so I am delighted that the report acknowledges the quality of the Constabulary’s investigations, in particular those involving vulnerable children and adults.

“However, it’s important that we remember that there is always more work to be done. I know the Constabulary are committed to continually improving and becoming an outstanding force nationally.”

Ms Mountstevens was elected to the role of Avon and Somerset PCC in 2012, when PCCs were first introduced.

By Amanda Cameron, local democracy reporting service

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