Stop and Search – three innocent but oh, so emotive words that have raised tempers, caused controversy and brought opprobrium on police forces across the country.
It is a power given to the police to do just what it says – stop and search individuals when police believe they have reasonable grounds, and sometimes not.
With the advent of Police Scotland a year ago, the number of stop and searches carried out in Fife seemed to skyrocket from one year to the next.
Now, because of public concerns over stop and search Police Scotland has launched a six-month pilot project in Fife that could see changes in stop and search across the whole of Scotland.
Police Scotland Chief Inspector Adrian Annandale, the local area commander for Fife’s east area explained what was happening.
But first he put the dramatic statistics, which saw an almost 500 per cent rise in the number of stop and searches, into context, and it’s all a matter of recording procedures, he says.
“We now strictly record every search we carry out,” Chief Inspector Annandale said, “even when an officer asks someone to empty their pockets.”
He approves of the new procedure, just as he welcomes the pilot project.
“It’s designed to achieve the highest levels of trust and confidence in the police and use stop and search as a tactic for keeping people safe and tackling crime,” he said.
And as police officers work to achieve that, Chief Inspector Annandale insisted: “We must make sure that every encounter is professional and every person searched is clear about why they are being searched.”
The pilot scheme now under way has three main aims – to improve accountability, confidence and data.
Chief Inspector Annandale believes the three are inter-linked. He said that by improving information about what was happening and where, the police would be better prepared to deal with crimes so increasing both accountability and confidence.
“Improving data will provide information and intelligence which is forward-looking which means we are able to target the right people at the right time and the right place,” he claimed, “preventing crimes before they even happen.
‘‘That improves confidence in the police and increases accountability.”
After it is evaluated, the programme may be rolled out across Scotland.
Politically though, stop and search remains a hot potato.
However, Fife Councillor Margaret Kennedy (Lib dem, Cupar) has welcomed the pilot scheme describing it as “a step in the right direction, particularly for such a sensitive subject.”
She added: “It is welcome that Police Scotland are finally exploring how to introduce proper procedures and recording systems.
‘‘Evidence-led, properly regulated stop and search can be an effective tool in detecting crime and making our streets safer.”
But Councillor Kennedy also expressed concerns at the continuing rate of stop and search.
“I remain concerned that this still means that two thirds of searches are conducted without sound legal basis, intelligence or suspicion,” she added.
The Scottish Government is adamant about stop and search: it is, according to a spokesman, a “tactic has been particularly effective in tackling crime in Fife.”