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New Labour and ethnic monitoring in policing

Paddy Hillyard


In the late 1970s and early 1980s most local authorities in England and Wales, following the example set by the Greater London Council, established ethnic monitoring systems. It was argued at the time that police forces should establish similar systems to monitor the use of their powers. There were numerous allegations, particularly from police monitoring groups, that the criminal justice system as a whole, and the police in particular, discriminated against ethnic minorities and it was therefore essential to monitor every aspect of the criminal justice process. Police forces, however, were reluctant to follow the example of local authorities.

With the passage of the Criminal Justice Act in 1991 the police were forced to take action. Section 95 places a duty on all persons working in the criminal justice system to avoid discriminating against anyone on the grounds of race, sex or other improper grounds and the Home Secretary is obliged to publish information that he or she considers expedient to monitor this duty. In 1992 the Home Office sent a circular to all Chief Constables drawing their attention to the requirements of Section 95. The following year Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) begun collating statistics for stops and searches but only on the basis of a white/non-white split and no ethnic information was collected on arrests.

In March 1995, following discussions within the Home Office, HMIC and the police, a more extensive system of ethnic monitoring was agreed. It now covers four main areas: stop/searches, arrests, cautions, and homicides. The system, described in Race and the Criminal Justice System 1997 published by the Home Office, requires a police officer to make his or her own judgement about the ethnic origins of the person. They are required to use, "a 4-point scale" (italics added), i.e. White, Black, Asian and Other"(p.8). The use of the word "scale" is totally inappropriate and implies a graduated series or order and suggests that the Home Secretary and the Chairman (sic) of the Criminal Justice Consultative Council, who sign and commend the Report, as well as a number of Home Office civil servants, have a long way to go in racism awareness.

The classification, apart from being based on a police officer’s assessment of a person’s ethnic identity rather than how the individual would describe themselves, fails to include a separate category for Irish people. They form the largest ethnic minority group in Britain and, moreover, there is increasing evidence that they are discriminated against by the police and in the criminal justice system. Yet most academic and government research continues to ignore their presence within British society. Notwithstanding these points, however, the new system of ethnic monitoring is a significant step forward and goes a long way to meet the demands of those who have been arguing for many years for some systematic monitoring of police powers.

This system of ethnic monitoring began in 1996 and the first set of figures were published by Home Secretary in Race and the Criminal Justice System 1997 in December last year – some six years after the section 95 provision in the Criminal Justice Act.

The Report’s findings

The Report presents a range of statistics on the four main areas. It records for all police force areas, the total number of people stopped and searched under section 1 of Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), the number of arrests, and the number cautioned broken down by ethnic appearance. The small number of homicides – 671 in 1996/97 – prevented any sensible analysis of the statistics by police force area. An appendix contains a statistical update on racial incidents, the proportion of ethnic minorities on probation and in prison and the ethnic breakdown of those working in the criminal justice system.

Some police forces are still not in a position to supply all the data required. The main offender appears to be the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) whose computer systems are apparently unable to provide all the detail on stops and searches and no data on the number of arrests by different ethnic groups. The Cheshire Police were also unable to supply data on arrests. This is an extraordinary situation given the length of time the police have had to introduce monitoring systems.

The Report provides data on stops and searches and arrests relative to the proportion of different ethnic groups in the population of each police force area. Rates, however, are presented for just ten of the forty-three police forces. No explanation is given as to why the analysis is not provided for all police forces: it is simply noted that the ten represent those with the highest percentage population of ethnic minorities. But discrimination against ethnic minorities may well be higher in those areas where numbers are low. Police notions of Black "suspiciousness" may be much higher in those areas where there are small proportions of ethnic minorities. By failing to provide a complete analysis of all forces, it gives rise to the suspicion that there is something to hide.

The rates for the 10 police forces show widespread differentials in the proportions of ethnic minority communities subject to stop and search and arrest powers. They show that relative to the population the number of stops and searches of those recorded as being of Black appearance was consistently about four or five times higher than for white people. The pattern for Asians was more varied but again the chance of being stopped and searched was consistently higher than the rate for white people. For arrests, the differences were even greater. The ratio varied from four to one in six forces to seven to one in one police force – Leicester. The arrest rates for Asians were considerably lower than for Black people but in the majority of the ten forces they were higher than for white people.

Despite these staggering differences the Report received very little attention. This perhaps is not surprising as the Press Release announcing it was simply entitled "Home Secretary Publishes new Data and Research on Police Community Relations". It made no mention of ethnicity, race or racism.

Reworking the data

As the Report noted the numbers stopped and searched and arrested for every police force area broken down by ethnic group, it has been possible to rework the data to produce the rates for most of the police force areas. It has not been possible, however, to include either the MPS or Cheshire in all of the analyses because they have produced no data on arrests. In addition, as the City of London is so different, it has been omitted. The Census of Population figures on ethnic origin published in the Home Office Report Race and the Criminal Justice System 1994 have been used to produce the rates. These figures produce identical results as those presented by the Home Office for the ten police forces for stop and searches per 1000 for white and black people but produce slightly different figures for rates for Asians and other ethnic groups. Arrest figures, however, differ, sometimes significantly, from those presented in the Home Office Report. Why this should be the case is difficult to understand because it is assumed that the Home Office used the same population figures in analysis of stop and searches and arrests.

Stop and search

The overall recorded rate of stop and search in England and Wales is 17 per 1000 of the population. The use of stop and search powers, however, varies greatly in different police force areas. Four police forces stop and search less than 5 per 1000 of their population: Devon and Cornwall, Dorset, Humberside and Wiltshire. At the other extreme, three forces stop and search over 30 per 1000 of their population: Northumbria (30 per 1000) Dyfed Powys (32 per 1000) and Cleveland (48 per 1000). Why there are such large differences in the use of the law is unknown but it has been a feature of policing for many years (See Statewatch July-August, 1996).

The variation in the use of these powers between white people and ethnic minorities in the population for England and Wales is extremely wide as can be seen in Table 1 below. The national stop and search rate for white people is 14 per 1000, for Black people 108 per 1000, for Asians 25 per 1000 and for other ethnic groups 25 per 1000. In other words Black people are nearly 8 times and Asians nearly twice as likely to be subject to a stop and search by the police than white people in England and Wales.


The use of stop and search powers within different police forces against different groups is also very varied. Four police forces stop and search more than 100 Black people per 1000 of the Black population: Merseyside (189 per 1000), Metropolitan Police (141 per 1000), Cleveland (135 per 1000) and Dyfed Powys (118 per 1000). These figures can be expressed another way. On Merseyside, for example, nearly one in every five Black people was stopped and searched. The actual rate is unlikely to be quite so high as some people may be stopped on more than one occasion during the year. Although the rate for Asians is consistently much less than for Black people, five police forces have stop and search rates of more than 30 per 1000: Gwent (45 per 1000), Norfolk (42 per 1000), West Midlands (37 per 1000), MPS (34 per 1000) and West Mercia (31 per 1000).

When the differences in the stop and search rates between white people and other ethnic groups are compared for individual police forces, Surrey tops the list; Black people are 8 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. The next highest difference is found on Merseyside where the rate is 7 times greater for Black people than whites. At the other extreme, two police forces, Cumbria and Northumbria, tend to stop and search more white people, proportionately, than those in ethnic minority populations.

The differential between white people and Asians is much smaller. Two forces, however, stand out with high differentials: Thames Valley, where Asians are over 4 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people and Bedfordshire where the Asian rate is 3 times as great as the white.

Arrest powers

The overall arrest rate in England and Wales is 37 per 1000 of the population. The use of the arrest powers, as with the stop and search powers, varies greatly in different police forces. Four police forces arrest more than 50 per 1000 of their population: Cleveland (60 per 1000), Northumbria (59 per 1000), Merseyside (53 per 1000) and Gwent (53 per 1000). Police forces with very low rates of arrest include Surrey (15 per 100) and Hertfordshire (18 per 1000).

The variation in the use of these arrest powers between white people and ethnic minority groups in the population for England and Wales is extremely wide as can be seen from Table 1. The arrest rate for white people is 34 per 1000, for Black people 155 per 1000, for Asians 47 per 1000 and for other ethnic groups 64 per 1000. In other words, the arrest rate for all ethnic groups is higher than for white people. For Black people it is nearly 5 times as great as for whites.

The variation of the use of the arrest powers within different police forces against Black people is staggering. The highest arrest rate for white people is in Northumbria with a rate of 59 per 1000 of the population. Yet only four police forces in the whole of England and Wales have arrest rates for Black people which are less than the highest rate for white people: North Wales (43 per 1000), Cleveland (33 per 1000), West Mercia (22 per 1000) and Cumbria (49 per 1000). In six police forces arrest rates for Black people exceed 200 per 1000 of the Black population: Sussex (242 per 1000), Kent (232 per 1000), Norfolk (231 per 1000) Staffordshire (221 per 1000) Merseyside (205 per 1000) and Dyfed Powys (206 per 1000). Put another way, these arrest rates are the equivalent of arresting one in every five Black people in the period, assuming that the same person is not arrested on more than one occasion. Asian arrest rates are much closer to white arrest rates and exceed the white rate by more than twice in only two police forces.

Metropolitan Police and CRE Working Party

In 1995 a working group was set up with representatives from the Metropolitan Police, the Home Office, the Commission for Racial Equity and National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. A draft Report was written over a year ago, showing the wide differentials between ethnic groups noted above, but, as recently reported in The Independent, Scotland Yard has decided not to publish it. It is claimed that it failed to address the contribution of stop and searches to the detection and prevention of crime. Beverley Thompson, a member of the working party, denies that this was in the original terms of reference, which was to look at ways to improve public confidence in stop and searches. She added: "They moved the goalposts because they didn’t like the results".

The Home Office’s response to the differentials

As these wide variations in the use of police powers in different sections of the population started to be revealed, the Home Office commissioned a number of research projects. One study by Fitzgerald and Sibbitt (1997), which examines various aspects of ethnic monitoring of the use of police powers, has now been published and another based on an analysis of the British Crime Survey data is shortly to be released. The argument of the research by Fitzgerald and Sibbitt is that the quality and limitations of the data makes it impossible to reach any conclusions about the over-representation of ethnic minorities. In particular, it is not possible to conclude that these staggering differentials indicate widespread police racism. For example, in relation to stop and searches they argue: "the evidence strongly suggests that even large ethnic differences in forces’ PACE figures should not be taken at face value as indicating discrimination"(p. 64). They argue that numerous variables other than ethnicity need to be controlled to make any comparisons meaningful. Thus, at the very moment when the first set of statistics are produced after a long struggle to get the police to introduce a system of ethnic monitoring, the statistics themselves are found wanting. In this context, too, the goalposts appear to have been moved.

Fitzgerald and Sibbitt recommend that there should be a shift from concentrating on what many assumed to be the essence of ethnic monitoring - the extent to which certain groups may be over-represented in the criminal justice system relative to their presence in the population – to decisions about what happens to them once they are in the frame. This means that police forces should not concern themselves with whether or not there is a differential in the rates of stop and search and arrest between ethnic groups. Instead they should move to the next stage in the process and analyse the outcome of their decisions at this point and ascertain whether there are any important ethnic differences.

The Race and the Criminal Justice System 1997 Report draws heavily on these conclusions and plays down the significance of the differentials. It also makes numerous caveats about the data, leaving the reader with the clear impression that any differences are simply an artefact of the data. In the chapter on Stops and Searches it dismisses the evidence provided for a number of years on a simple white/non-white split, which has consistently shown that non-whites are 4 times as likely to be subject to a stop and search as white people, on the grounds that the difference "mainly reflects the position in London, since the MPS area covers the majority of stops and searches and has the largest proportion of the ethnic minority population. This is simply nonsense: the difference cannot be explained away like this. The figures are represented as a proportion of different ethnic groups in each police force area and therefore it does not matter that the MPS carry out the majority of searches.

The Report also makes reference to Fitzgerald and Sibbitt’s finding that the official stop and searches do not form a complete record of all searches. This is, of course, something that has been known for many years and has been constantly drawn to the attention of the authorities by police monitoring groups. The under-recording, apart from indicating a sloppiness in police practices, it is not significant in itself. What is important is whether or not under-reporting varies between the difference ethnic groups. The research claims that searches of white people are more likely to be under-recorded than those of black people. But this is based on anecdotal evidence from police officers: no figures are provided on the extent of the under-recording. Furthermore, stops which are not accompanied by searches need not be reported at all. It may be that Black people are disproportionately subject to this.

The Report, in addition, refers to Fitzgerald and Sibbitt’s argument about the variations in the use of PACE powers. It is important to quote the explanation in full because it provides an insight into the type of argument that the Home Office and the police are likely to present in response to high differentials in the use of police powers.

[The research shows]…the fact that variations in police use of the PACE power by location, time of day and in connection with legitimate targeting may impact differently on different groups within the overall police area. This indicates that there may be no clear relationship between the population at risk of being stopped and the population of an area. For example, those stopped in the City of London may well be unrepresentative of the resident population.

There is little doubt that stop and searches do vary by location, time of day and in connection with legitimate targeting and therefore impact on different groups in different ways. But this point does not by itself provide a defence to the charge of racism. It is necessary to ascertain the extent to which these patterns are determined by prejudice or other factors that may adversely affect the treatment of ethnic minorities. In addition, to claim that differential policing practice "indicates" that there may be no clear relationship between the population at risk of being stopped and searched and the resident population is grossly misleading. Again, it is important to ascertain the police criteria for defining a population at risk and whether it is based on prejudice. Furthermore, to use the most unrepresentative comparison possible between an at risk population and the resident population is perverse. As the Home Office is very aware, the City of London has the smallest resident population - under 5000 - but the largest daily inflow population of any police force area.

One important factor that will affect the use of police powers is the age structure of the population in the police force area. The greater the proportion of the population in the age range from which the majority of street suspects are drawn either within the population as a whole or within different sections, the greater the likelihood, if all other factors are assumed equal, of the use of police powers. The number of stop and searches and arrests therefore need to be standardised, in the same way as the number of deaths, by the proportion of different age groups within the population as a whole and within different sections of it in each police force area. This exercise has not yet been carried out.

Arrest statistics are apparently even more problematic. Although the police have been obliged to collect statistics on arrests since the Criminal Law Act 1977, they have been subject to little attention. It is now claimed by the HMIC that the variability in the data between forces makes comparisons unsafe and the figures which it regularly published have been suspended for the time being. The MPS were never part of the HMIC’s series but it did collect figures on arrests for notifiable offences, which were published annually. It has now emerged from Fitzgerald and Sibbitt’s research that these figures only covered arrests which resulted in a caution or prosecution and excluded any arrest which led to no further action. It suggests that the actual number of arrests in England and Wales is far greater than previously estimated and may well be in excess of 2 million per year (See Statewatch July-august 1995). The Race and Criminal Justice 1997 Report draws attention to another problem with the arrest statistics: the basis for arrests apparently varies between police forces. But the law states clearly in relation to most offences that an arrest can only to made if an officer has reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed or is about to be committed.

Arrest is the most coercive power open to the police and it is extraordinary that in 1998 the MPS, the largest police force in the United Kingdom, still does not have comprehensive statistics on the number of citizens who are removed from the streets of London and detained in police custody every year and how many of these are from the ethnic minority communities. It contrasts sharply with the effort and resources that go into collecting statistics on the nature and extent of crime and the alleged ethnic identity of the perpetrators. It reflects not only a lack of concern about ethnic relations but also civil liberties.


It has taken many years for the police to introduce a system of ethnic monitoring following widespread complaints that Black people, in particular, are subject to discrimination in the police use of stop and search and arrest powers. Now that the first set of figures are released which appear to support strongly the allegations, the government and the police say that the figures are either unreliable or subject to problems of interpretation. It is not a situation which inspires confidence in police community relations. While there are a number of factors other than discrimination which may explain some of the differences, such as the age structure of the different communities, it is wrong for the Home Office to go to the other extreme based on the current research, and argue that the differences should not be taken as indicating discrimination. Moreover, the refusal of the Metropolitan Police to publish its own working party’s report on the use of stop and search and the fact that it still does not collect comprehensive figures on the number of arrests does little to instil confidence. All of this adds more weight for an independent body to have responsibility for the collection and publication of key social statistics.


Blacks are ‘targeted for police searches’, The Independent, Monday 8 June, 1998

Fitzgerald, M. and Sibbitt, R. (1997), Ethnic Monitoring in police forces: A beginning, Home Office Research Study 173

Race and the Criminal Justice System 1997, Home Office.

Hillyard, P. (1996), Policing the Streets: Stop and Powers in 1995, Statewatch, July-August, pp. 13-15


Paddy Hillyard
Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Social Justice
School for Policy Studies
University of Bristol
8 Priory Road
Bristol BS8 1TZ
E-mail: Paddy.Hillyard@bristol.ac.uk


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