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Stop and Search in Scotland - new figures

Jody Harrison, Scottish Mail on Sunday, 9 November 2008

HUGE numbers of Scots are being stopped and searched by police using powers to crack down on serious crime and terrorism.More than half a million people north of the Border have been targeted over the past three years, an investigation by The Scottish Mail on Sunday has found.

This is despite evidence the procedures rarely result in offenders being caught.

Officers have stopped more than 3,200 members of the public a week since 2005, an average of nearly 500 a day. And the number of searches carried out by police is rising, with figures recording an increase of 31 per cent between 2006 and last year.

The disclosure has angered civil liberties campaigners and politicians have also voiced concerns about the 'draconian' way in which the powers are being used.

Last night, Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Robert Brown said: 'This is a disproportionate number of people being stopped. Very few searches seem to be leading to further police action. This is an issue the Inspectorate of Constabulary for Scotland should be looking into.'

James Welch, legal director of civil liberties group Liberty, said: 'While these powers can help police fight crime, stop and search is just one tool of policing. If overused it can alienate more law-abiding people than it protects.'

In Scotland, police can stop and search anyone they suspect of committing an offence and use searches to crack down on drug use, the carrying of weapons or when someone has been suspected of shoplifting or having stolen property.Generally, a search will take five to ten minutes and will involve officers looking through a suspect's pockets and possibly their car.

Notes of the person's height, hair colour, build and skin tone may also be taken.

Legal chiefs have admitted that the' present laws are a 'grey area', with as many as 12 Acts of Parliament granting stop and search powers to the police in different circumstances.

There is also confusion over whether a suspect can refuse to be searched or if officers are legally obliged to seek their consent.

According to papers released under the Freedom of Information Act, Scotland's police forces have used stop and search powers on 555,870 occasions since January 2005.

But the figures show that the procedures have a poor record of catching offenders, with only one in five searches on average resulting in a 'positive' outcome where officers found evidence of criminal intent.

In the Strathclyde Police area, the ratio of successful searches was as low as one in 12 last year. The 129,563 searches carried out resulted in just 9,298 'positive results'.

But Conservative justice spokesman Bill Aitken hailed the figures as proof that the police were doing their job, saying the 'end justified the means'.

He added: 'If one in 12 searches is positive then that is a crime that has been detected or a knife that has been taken off someone. These searches save lives.'

One senior police officer defended the rise in searches, insisting they were helping to prevent crime.

Strathclyde Police Assistant Chief Constable (Crime) Campbell Corri-gan said: The importance of police officers stopping and searching individuals has long been recognised as a valuable means of preventing disorder, detecting crime, gathering intelligence and increasing public reassurance.

'Police officers stop and search only when they have reasonable cause to suspect that an offence is being committed.'Richard Haley, of the pressure group Scotland Against Criminalising Communities, said the lack of clear legislation on the subject isf leading to police overusing the powers.

He added: 'If people are beinigcharged because of these searches then that is understandable. But the number of times these powers ari used without a result does indicate there is something wrong with the police's powers of suspicion.'

A spokesman for the Scottish Executive said: 'Police forces must balance the need to allow law-abiding citizens to go about their business, and carrying out a proportionate number of stop and searches. We believe they have got that balance right.'