Stopped by the police? So what!

Published on 30/03/2020

New emergency police powers in the UK and across the globe mean that the police may choose to use the law, rather than persuasion or goodwill to enforce social distancing, restrictions on movement and lockdowns imposed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Being stopped by the police is a big deal for the person stopped and the police officer, but what is it really like? Whilst the encounter may end without incident, there is always the risk that it will result in harm, violence, injury, criminalisation, complaint and be the next 45 second clip to go viral on social media. Coronavirus adds a new layer of risk and uncertainty to an already complex issue.

Every police initiated interaction with a citizen on the street is a moment of jeopardy, a stressful and potentially lethal encounter. Officers are usually in control, equipped to deal with the conflict, unphased by such a normal (for them) event. For the member of the public, it can be a frightening, intimidating and traumatising experience that will be recounted to friends and family for days, weeks, months, even years to come.

You sometimes hear the police and members of the public saying things like, “I wouldn’t mind being stopped and searched every day if it helped to reduce crime”, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about”, or “It only takes a couple of minutes, what harm can it do”. The people saying these things have often never been stopped by the police, and are referring to ‘other people’. It’s easy to provide blanket support to the police for something that rarely affects you or those around you, when what is intended and what actually happens is the ‘other’ is getting stopped, not you. New Coronavirus powers mean that a wider swathe of society may now experience an encounter with the police that they have only seen on TV dramas or the news before.

So, what about you? Have you ever been stopped or ID checked by the police? I don’t mean searched at an airport, but stopped in the street, on foot, where you were picked out for some reason. What about when you were driving a car? Not at a checkpoint, but picked out, chosen, when others seem to be able to drive happily by? Believe it or not, some people have never been stopped by the police which to some of us actually seems weird because being stopped for some people is a ‘normal’, a part of life.

Ask your close friends, family, work colleagues whether they have experienced a police stop, and how they felt. The answers will be revealing. Some may say ‘fine’, ‘quick’, ‘nice’, but others will tell very different stories. Their one word answers are more likely to be ‘intimidated’, ‘frightened’, ‘humiliated’, ‘embarrassed’, ‘angry’, ‘discriminated’ and will quickly flow into stories that describe what a big deal being on the receiving end of a police stop actually is.

In 30 years of policing, I know that very few of my colleagues had any experience of being stopped themselves. Working with police officers in several European countries, a remarkably similar picture appears. Officers of colour have been stopped, sometimes by their own colleagues, multiple times, but for the vast majority of officers, being stopped by one of their colleagues is not an issue or a conversation. Police officers are rarely on the receiving end, so many don’t know what it feels like; what it does to you, how it affects you the next time you see ‘the police’, how it makes you want to avoid the police in case they stop you. Officers find it difficult to empathise with the experience of being stopped. For them, stopping people is normal, being stopped is not.

As a senior police officer, the training that I developed for Leicestershire Police and as Stop & Search lead for the College of Policing in the UK had this as an important element – discussions amongst officers of their own experience of being stopped by the police, sharing their personal stories. It encourages officers to see police stops from a different perspective and to ask important questions about the topic, not just how they should stop people (with courtesy, respect), but more importantly, about whether to stop them. If stopping someone is not viewed as a significant decision, officers will do so with little thought for the consequences and impact of it, but when they know its effect, they will make better decisions about whether to carry a stop out in the first place.

Statistically, in the UK, if you are Black you are up to nine times more likely to be stopped . Asian people, people from poorer backgrounds, and specifically young men have higher stop rates, but the statistics, where they exist, only tell part of the story. You won’t find many people who have been stopped numerous times trotting out the same old ‘stop me every day’ lines. The police deal with evidence, and there is significant evidence that shows simply stopping people, without an intelligence led, evidence based approach, is ineffective, counterproductive and discriminatory. Doing lots of stops makes for handy news headlines, but the truth is, it doesn’t work. The long term negative effects on individuals and communities that are targeted, far outweighs the short term benefits achieved by the stops themselves.
Hopefully, a proportionate and measured approach will be taken by the police but my advice, no matter how you feel about being stopped, is to follow these three steps:

  1.  Stay calm. This is much easier said than done, but if you shout or swear or resist physically in any way, it will usually result in a bad outcome for you;
  2.  Ask questions. Why are you being stopped ? What is the officer’s name or ID number ? Which power is the officer using ? Asking, rather than demanding, will help you to stay calm and not escalate the situation.
  3. Record it. Try to film the encounter or audio record it. Remember that trying to film may escalate the situation and outside the UK some restrictions on filming police activity, and/or sharing on social media exist. Get the details of anyone else who has recorded the encounter and if the officer(s) has a body cam, ask for their details too. Having independent records of the encounter protects everyone.

Following these steps will more likely mean a less confrontational encounter, and enable you to follow up if there has been a problem or you feel the stop was unjustified or unlawful.
Police stops are most likely to result in the people stopped having less confidence and trust in the police, and this negative sentiment permeates family and friends. Fewer police stops means fewer bad experiences, which in the long run is better for everyone.


Nick Glynn is a retired senior police officer from the UK. In his 30 years’ service he had a variety of frontline, training and managerial roles up to Chief Inspector rank. He has extensive experience in Public Order Command and is an expert on stop and search and police use of force. He has a law degree and a Masters degree in Applied Criminology from Cambridge University. He leads the Better Policing portfolio at Open Society Foundations, and is @nickglynn on Twitter.

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One thought on “Stopped by the police? So what!

  1. Very well written article and very insightful. A couple of observations from the point of view of people in the UK. When advising members of the public is there any reason you don’t recommend people to ensure GOWISELY is followed as we do in Bedfordshire. Ask for the Grounds, objective of the search, a warrant card if not in uniform, the identity of the officer, the law being used their entitlement to a copy of the stop and search and also the office should state that they are detained for the purpose of the stop and search. My second observation as most officers should be wearing body warn cameras, any reason why you are not recommending to members of the public to check that it is on – red light on the camera or any other officer around is also recording the encounter? Also you mentioned the rates of disproportionality. I agree with your view on police officers not being able to emphasis due to their lived experience but even with Covid -19 anyone stopped under this directive is very unlikely to be repeatedly stopped because of the officers perception of who they are and what they look like. it will be because they are almost definitely breaking social distancing rules which in itself gives an officer reasonable cause to speak to them. Finally from a European point of view I assume there are minorities in Spain, Germany, France and other countries who experience the same encounters as those you describe from a British citizens point of view.

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