A doctoral research project examining stop and search in Scotland has led to new legislation, major changes in policy and a 93 per cent drop in the recorded number of stop searches and seizures between August 2013 and December 2015.

At only the start of her academic career, Dr Kath Murray’s remarkable research achievement in prompting the stop and search changes incorporated into the 2015 Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill has been recognised by a £10,000 award for Outstanding Early Career Impact in the 2016 Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Celebrating Impact Prize in partnership with SAGE Publishing.

Kath Murray receiving her prize

Dr Murray’s suspicions about stop and search (which allows police officers to search without suspicion or legal authority) were aroused during her PhD research into encounters between the public and police. Working through the data she uncovered an extraordinary fact: in 2010 police officers recorded more searches on 16-year-olds in Glasgow than the number of 16-year-olds living in the city. 

She had unearthed what she describes as “jaw-dropping” levels of largely suspicion-less stop and search practices, targeted disproportionately at young teenage boys, and undertaken without scrutiny or accountability. “People in Scotland were four times more likely to be searched than those living in England and hundreds of children – some as young as six – had been searched,” Dr Murray explains. “Most of these searches had no legal basis and it seemed clear that the prevalence of the practice was potentially damaging in terms of police legitimacy and police-community relations.”

Police Scotland initially refused to accept there was a problem with stop and search. “I think it was assumed that the story would blow over.” Dr Murray points out. But, following her proactive campaign to raise awareness, the Scottish Government appointed an Independent Advisory Group to review the situation in April 2015. This led, in December 2015, to the Scottish Parliament passing the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act which abolished non-statutory stop and search, established a statutory Code of Practice, and introduced mechanisms to ensure stop and search is accountable and open to scrutiny. 

Changes to police practice have followed including new recording practice, routine publishing of statistics, police providing an advice slip stating the officers’ details and reason for search, and a formal complaints procedure.

The judging panel for the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize unanimously agreed that Dr Murray’s work had successfully achieved a significant impact on society. Within the space of two years Police Scotland has moved from a policy based on crime control values, to one that aims to balance effective policing with due process, and has recognised the impact of intrusive police tactics on police-community relationships.

In agreement, Professor Richard Sparks, Head of Law School, University of Edinburgh, points out: “For a doctoral project to have initiated a major public debate on an aspect of police practice and led directly to a change in legislation is unprecedented in my experience.”

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