Stop and Search in Scotland- Change within change

Published on 18/05/2020

In 2014, for the first time in Scotland stop and search became a matter of significant importance to the public, the government, and the police. Academic research (Murray, 2014) exposed that stop and search had been used disproportionately and unfairly, in some areas exceeding the use of even the London Metropolitan Police. Questions surrounding its legitimacy, fairness, and proportionality ultimately culminated in the legal reform of stop and search. The public experience of stop and search, and the outcry regarding its use, is well known (for example, Bradford 2016, Murray & Lennon 2016). However, what is generally less well known is the police experience of stop and search. My PhD research explores exactly that: the police experience of stop and search and it’s reform in Scotland. What this research demonstrates is that, for many frontline officers, stop and search in Scotland is deeply intertwined with the broader context of organisational reform. For those interested in the context of stop and search in Scotland, this blog serves as a brief explanation of the frontline experience of this.

In Scotland, the volume and use of stop and search in Scotland was problematic for the public since at least 2010 (Murray, 2014). However, my research demonstrates that stop and search did not become problematic for frontline officers (defined in my research as mainly constables, but also some sergeants and chief inspectors) until the amalgamation of the police service of Scotland in 2013. This reform of the police service of Scotland represented a whole-sale change to policing for the country by amalgamating eight regional forces into one nationally managed service. Where policies, resources and fiscal matters were previously the responsibility of regional forces, they were now subsumed under one centralised system of governance (Terpstra and Fyfe, 2015). Included within this change was the implementation of national policies for police practice, amongst these policies was the creation of key performance indicators to monitor the use and volume of stop and search in Scotland. The key performance indicators were described by officers as either implicitly or explicitly mandated by senior management and enforced by local management.

The implementation of KPI’s for stop and search during this period was recalled by many officers as the pivotal moment when stop and search became problematic for them in their operational work. Many officers described these targets as unachievable and inappropriate to the local policing context. Some officers described feeling under considerable pressure to achieve what they felt to be insurmountable targets for volume stop and search, and some described how they felt this challenged the integrity of policing in Scotland.

“Senior management set targets for stop searches…Officers felt obliged to carry out stop searches or perhaps even fabricate figures due to the demands made by senior management…This old process was futile, bringing down the effectiveness of good officers’ instincts and demoralising officers making them reluctant to carry out any searches what so ever. Senior management made threats down the chain of command which inevitably ended up with front line officers feeling forced to falsify records in order to meet the targets.”

(PhD research, Survey Response, 2017)

After the exposure of stop and search and these policies in Scotland by Kath Murray in 2014, there was immediate public outcry over the practice. This outcry set the wheels in motion that ultimately resulted in the reform of stop and search in Scotland. However, the aftermath of this period was a painful experience for many of the frontline, with some feeling that they were unfairly blamed for the consequences of stop and search. These feelings were further compacted when senior management publicly denied the frontline message that KPI’s were used to enforce stop and search. In 2015, the incumbent Chief Constable of Police Scotland stated that “there are no targets of volume in terms of stop and search” (Scottish Parliament Justice sub-committee on policing, 2015).

They felt hurt when Stephen House went to the media and on the ‘telly’ and blamed the officers directly for the problems of stop and search.
(PhD Research, Regional Ethnography, 2017)

Following from this heated political and public environment, a number of inputs from academics, an advisory group, and HMICS, were considered by the government and this ultimately resulted in the reform of the use of stop and search in Scotland in May 2017 through the implementation of the Code of Practice. This code required: all searches henceforth to be underpinned by statute, increased accountability and recording measures, and the re-training of all frontline officers in the powers of stop and search. During this period of reform of stop and search, some frontline officers felt that they were scapegoated by their organisation. The training was described as being a painful reminder of what was felt to be an erroneous attribution of blame.

“What has caused the issue happened at a different level and yet it’s the cops that feel the pain”.
(PhD Research, Training Ethnography, 2017)

Stop and search in Scotland has undergone significant reform, and this reform has generally been well-received by governing bodies such as HMICS: “Police Scotland has made substantial improvements in the use and recording of stop and search activity in Scotland”. However, whilst outwardly stop and search has improved significantly, internally policing underwent a troubling and demoralising period for many of the frontline in which their integrity, professionalism, and abilities were felt to be unfairly called into question.

Looking only at the public outcomes of stop and search will only ever tell half the story. Stop and search always involves two groups: those being searched and those doing the searching. By refocussing the lens of critical inquiry onto the police experience of stop and search, it becomes clear that this surface change has hidden underneath it a set of difficult and challenging experiences that cut to the core of frontline culture.

(Credits Image: screenshot from the official Police Scotland video available at

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