Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/01/26/met_so44_touchy_feely/

Stop'n'search gets touchy-feely

Section 44 not to detect terrorists 'but to reassure Londoners'

By David Mery

Posted in Law, 26th January 2009 12:02 GMT

Feeling unsafe in your life? Looking for reassurance? The Metropolitan Police Service can help you with a touchy-feely new innovation. It's called stop and search.

A new document hints at a shift of emphasis in the Met's strategic vision for counter terrorism stop and search powers. It's going to be a public relations tool.

Section 44 stops and searches were introduced by the Terrorism Act 2000. These powers differ from those of standard stop and search powers, as provided by Section 1 Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, in that to use them officers do not need to have reasonable suspicion an offence is being committed.

They can only be invoked in an area or place for which an authorisation has been given by a police officer who is of at least the rank of commander of the Metropolitan Police (for London), and confirmed by the Secretary of State. Authorisations can only last up to 28 days, but they can be renewed ad infinitum, as is currently case for the whole of London.

The Metropolitan Police Service Stop & Search Strategic Committee has recently updated its Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on Section 44 Terrorism Act 2000; the Metropolitan Police Authority had recommended a review of this document in its Review of police use of counter-terrorism Stop and Search powers in London. This SOP was developed by the Territorial Policing Safer Neighbourhoods unit, first issued on August 1 2007 and later revised to remove Stop codes on December 31 2008. It's been published as part of the Met Freedom of Information Act publication scheme.

Your reporter happened to have saved a much older version prepared just before the London July 7 bombings. It had been compiled by the Territorial Policing Modernising Operations unit for the Demand Management Strategic Committee. This older version initially issued on April 1 2005 and subsequently revised on May 5 2005 is not mentioned at all in the new document. Comparing these two documents shows an evolution in how the Met considers the Section 44 stop and search powers and how it advises its constables to handle them.

Comparing the 'Appropriate Use' section of these two documents shows a change in the purpose of these powers:

Purpose

It is important that officers take every opportunity to detect, deter and disrupt terrorist operations and provide public reassurance.

Essence of section 44

Police officers in uniform are entitled authorised to stop and search people/vehicles to see whether they have 'articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism' and if when no such articles are found then they must be allowed to go on their way.

There's an implicit admission that Section 44 stops and searches do not detect terrorists. This is borne out by the available data. In the financial years 2003/4 to 2006/7, the Met stopped and searched 31,797 pedestrians using the powers of Section 44(2); of these only 79 were arrested in connection with terrorism - less than a quarter of a percent - and even fewer will be convicted. The purpose of deterring is feeble considering the extent to which the Home Office is ready to go to avoid revealing when and where the exceptional powers for Section 44 apply.

If the location of authorised zones and when these are in effect is secret, how can it have a deterrent effect at all? What we're left with is the new belief of the Met that these stops and searches are taking place to provide reassurance to Londoners. The time difference is not as much as in Life on Mars but back when the earlier document was written, officers were entitled as now they're authorised; a much more civilised approach to policing.

New text on the introductory page reinforces that a key change in focus in what the Met wants to achieve with these powers is to be seen to be doing something, to reassure Londoners. Surely this could be better done than by stopping and searching passers-by without reasonable cause?

Introduction

Stop and search powers under Section 43 and 44 Terrorism Act 2000 are used to improve the security of London and enhance community confidence by demonstrating a visible, responsive and proactive style of policing. The exercise of Section 44 powers is to disrupt, deter and prevent terrorism and to help create a hostile and uncertain environment for terrorists who wish to operate in London. Section 43 powers are used as a tactic to detect terrorists.

Strategic vision

Counter Terrorism stop powers, if used appropriately and effectively, will serve to reassure the people of London and in doing so will install trust and confidence of all communities.

Historic evidence

Historic evidence on the methodology of both Irish National and International terrorists indicates that they operate on a pan-London and indeed occasionally a pan-UK basis.

  • Terrorists need to travel - meetings, training and planning can take place anywhere.
  • Terrorists need transport - they need to move equipment, material and people around.
  • Terrorists need to prepare - hostile reconnaissance and surveillance is carried out to plan attacks.

Primary targets

The particular areas where they live, plan, meet and store equipment and arms are generally away from the iconic, financial, crowded places and transportation hubs, which they seek as primary targets.

Vigilance

All staff should must recognise that there is an ongoing daily requirement to be remain vigilant and alert to terrorist related activity wherever they may be based or whatever type of policing activity they are involved in.

The mention of the Section 43 powers right in the introduction is clearly there to increase the awareness of all constables of these other stop and search powers also present in the Terrorism Act 2000. The new short sentence on Section 43 is also were the detection of terrorists reappears, as a tactic.

Section 43 provides powers for the police to search someone they reasonably suspect of being a terrorist for the purpose of discovering relevant evidence. These powers are distinct and should not be confused; this is clarified in a new section titled 'The Encounter':

If after speaking with the person stopped the officer considers a search is still required, then a Section 44 search should be carried out. If the officer has reasonable grounds to search then a section 43 search should be completed.

None of the generally available statistics (such as Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System, Home Office Statistical Bulletins and Met Stop and Search Monitoring Reports) that include data on stops and searches separate Section 43 data from overall total. One of the very few relevant statistics appeared in the Metropolitan Police Authority document Counter-Terrorism: The London Debate: from October 2005 to September 2006, the Met conducted 114 Section 43 stops resulting in 13 arrests, none of which were for terrorism-related offences. From this limited data, Section 43 has been particularly inefficient to detect terrorists.

Terrorists do indeed need to travel, transport and prepare. They also need to sleep and eat. As does everyone else. The last annual Met counter-terrorism ad campaign highlighted three dangerous items used by terrorists: mobile phones, houses and cameras. Photographers have been found particularly suspicious lately.

In the new 'The Encounter' section, one of the "Notes to officer" is:

Explain to the person being stopped that they are being stopped as part of the operation to reduce the risk of terrorism in London. Reassure the individual that the stop is a routine part of counter-terrorist policing and it is a preventative power proven to help make London safer from a terrorist attack.

After years of getting poor results in terms of stopping terrorists using the powers of Section 44, is the Met attempting to use these as a public relations tool? Officers conducting the stops and searches may find it difficult to convince us.

(For a more general context see the latest Practice advice on stop and search in relation to terrorism, now produced by the National Policing Improvement Agency on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers.)

David Mery is a scribbler and technologist based in London. Over three years ago he was stopped and searched under Section 44(2). Subsequently he went to ask a question to the Metropolitan Police Authority about the effects of such tactics on the relationship between Londoners and the police. His website is gizmonaut.net.