The police’s serious IT failures over stop and search

The use of stop and search by the police, particularly in London, has often come under criticism. Most often it has been about ridiculous cases where someone has been stopped or, more seriously, the deeply held suspicion amongst many communities that their members are irrationally singled out by the police for far more searches than their numbers or crime rates justify.

This argument about what is sometimes called disproportionality should not only be of concern in terms of wanting to see the police free of discrimination, but also of concern in terms of wanting the police to be using their time effectively to catch criminals. If the police are wasting time irrationally persecuting particular communities, it’s not just those communities who suffer. We also suffer from the waste of police time that could have gone on better things.

So when I was recently reading various committee papers from the Met Police, as you do, my eye was caught by a document about stop and search in London.

Ah, I wondered: so how do patterns of stop and search match up with crime hotspots?

Alas, the police don’t know as a matter of course:

The MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] is unable to ‘hotspot’ where stops are taking place or overlay them against crime hotspots or taskings because there is no field on the current Form 5090 – used to record stop and search – to record a Geo-code, and the database that stores the data does not Geo-code the location. The Personal Digital Assistants – palm-top computers – recently introduced by the MPS do have GPS capability, however, they are not GPS enabled and therefore it is not possible to Geo-code stops recorded on the PDA.

The police do go on to say they’ve done some individual research, but it’s a pretty damning indictment of their IT set-up that fundamentally the police can’t match up the work they do to stop crime with records of where crime takes place. It’s not even that they are struggling with antiquated IT equipment, kept in use to cut costs. It even applies with the “recently introduced” new equipment.

So then I wondered: but surely at least the police know the outcome of their stop and searches, for example how many convictions occur per 1,000 stop and searches?

Alas, once again the police doesn’t know:

The MPS is unable to provide any data relating to persons charged or cautioned subsequent to a stop and search because this information is recorded separately on two different databases which are incompatible. Arrests and subsequent case disposals are recorded on the national NSPIS custody computer system, stops and searches are recorded on the MPS Crimint Plus ‘Stops’ database.

Once again, quite underwhelming. Quite how the police are managing their work when they don’t know if an activity actually results in people being charged or cautioned is a real puzzler, but given the police don’t match up stop and search with crimes, charges or cautions it’s a tactic that almost certainly isn’t being used in the most effective and appropriate way.

The Met go on to say, “The Next Steps Project involves a number of activities intended to demonstrate the effective and efficient ‘intelligence led’ use of stop and search”. With a bit of luck (or even some prodding from London Assembly members, hint hint) that may involve taking rather more seriously the need for proper data to answer the questions “are we doing this in the right places?” and “do we end up catching criminals?”.

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