Stop and Search
The Police Service of Northern Ireland has a positive obligation to prevent and detect crime in order to protect our communities from harm and build a safe, confident and peaceful society. Stop and Search is an operational tool used to prevent, detect and investigate crime as well as to bring offenders to justice.
Police officers have a legal power to stop and search members of the public in certain circumstances, from dealing with incidents of anti-social behaviour through to countering terrorism. Officers will treat members of the public in keeping with the Police Service's core values of fairness, courtesy and respect.
The Police Service recognises that stopping and searching members of the public is a significant intrusion into their lives and are committed to ensuring that all use of this activity is carried out in a lawful, proportionate, justifiable and accountable manner.
In most circumstances a police officer will need grounds to search you. Some stop and search powers (those under the Justice and Security (NI) Act 2007) allow you to be searched without grounds, for example, to counter terrorism or if there is a risk of serious violence or disorder.
Stop and search powers are used to support the organisation’s principle of keeping people safe (the duty of a police officer is set out in Section 32 Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000). Successful use of these powers prevents crime and reduces the need for officers to use powers of arrest.
Officers must follow rules set out in codes of practice relating to stop and search, these outline how you should be treated and what rights you have. You can view this legislation here:
- Police and Criminal Evidence (NI) Order 1989
- Misuse Drugs Act 1971
- Terrorism Act 2000
- Justice and Security (NI) Act 2007
The police can stop and search you for reasons including:
- If there has been serious violence or disorder in the area.
- If the police are looking for a suspect who fits your description.
- If the police have reasonable grounds to suspect you’re carrying drugs, a weapon or stolen property.
- In countering terrorism.
If you are subject to a stop and search:
- Being stopped does not mean that you are under arrest or that you have necessarily done something wrong.
- If you are stopped, you are required to stay for the duration of the search. If necessary you will be prevented from walking away.
- Officers must use the search powers fairly, responsibly and with respect for people without discriminating.
- Officers must make sure that the search time is kept to a minimum.
- The search must take place near to where you were stopped, except on occasions where moving you would protect your privacy.
- If you are in a public place, you only have to take off your coat or jacket and any gloves that you are wearing, unless you have been stopped in relation to terrorism or where Police believe you are using clothes to hide your identity.
Stop and search under Justice and Security (NI) Act 2007:
The Police Service fully understand and accept that scrutiny and accountability support the development of a better and more effective police service and as such the use of the Justice and Security (NI) Act 2007 is subject to an extensive internal and external governance and scrutiny process:
- Authorisation for the use of stop and search can only be given by an Assistant Chief Constable following the presentation of a detailed case.
- There is no ‘blanket’ application of these powers. An authorisation is specified for a geographic area for a fixed period of time, after which it must be reviewed.
- The Secretary of state must be informed of an authorisation as soon as reasonably practicable after it is given and must confirm an authorisation if it is to last longer than 48 hours.
- A rigorous regime is in place to ensure that the powers are always used in accordance with law and appropriately.
The Police Service’s use of Stop and Search has, and will continue to be, scrutinized by the Policing Board’s Human Rights advisers, the Police Ombudsman and the Independent Reviewer of Justice and Security act.
Stop and search scrutiny:
- District supervision checks
- Assurance reviews
- Quarterly governance meetings chaired at ACC level
- Northern Ireland Policing Board
- Independent reviewer – David Seymour CB
- Northern Ireland Courts Service
- Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland
Stop and Search Frequently Asked Questions
Who can stop and search me?
Any police officer can stop and search you. If they are not in uniform they must identify themselves prior to the search taking place.
Where can I be searched?
In a public place anywhere, if the police believe you have committed or are about to commit a crime. If you are in a public place then you are only required to take off your coat, jacket or gloves, unless you have been stopped in relation to terrorism.
If there is a requirement for you to take off more than this it must be done out of public view.
What happens if I am stopped and searched?
Before a search, where practicable a police officer must tell you the grounds for the search, what they are looking for, their name (except in relation to terrorism) and station attached. They must also explain to you how to receive a copy of the search record.
What paperwork should I get if I am stopped and searched?
Police Officers are required to complete a record of the search electronically. After the search you will receive a card with your unique reference number and details of how to obtain a copy of the search record. The record will be available for you to request up to 12 months after the stop and search.
Is this a criminal record?
The fact that you are stopped and searched does not mean that you have done anything wrong or that you are under arrest. The officer is required to complete a form but this does not amount to you having a police record.
Can I be stopped and searched more than once a day?
There is nothing in law to prevent a person being stopped and searched more than once in any day, as long as the legal requirements are fulfilled on each occasion.
What if I refuse?
If you refuse to stop, officers can use reasonable force to stop you so they can conduct a search. Depending on your behavior your refusal could lead to you being arrested for Obstructing a Police Officer.
Why is the arrest rate so low following a stop and search under Justice & Security (NI) Act 2007?
Justice and Security powers are authorised when a senior police officer reasonably suspects that the safety of any person might be endangered by the use of munitions or wireless telegraphy apparatus and reasonably considers that the authorisation is necessary to prevent such danger.
The small number of arrests does not mean that the police activity was unnecessary, unjustified or disproportionate. It must be stressed that this power is a no reasonable suspicion power to stop and search. Police are often in possession of information to indicate that individuals (either named or unnamed) are involved in activity that may cause harm to members of the public or security forces through the use of munitions or wireless apparatus. The nature of this information may not be specific enough to detail the how, where or when. Police have a positive obligation to protect the public from harm being caused and to use stop and search as a tactic that will be given careful consideration by District Commanders in an effort to prevent that harm from being caused. The primary purpose of officers exercising the powers will be to ascertain if anyone is in possession of munitions or wireless apparatus. The fact that harmful activity has been disrupted, attacks prevented and lives saved is an accepted and welcome by-product.
The power therefore has the overarching impact of being a preventative measure, to protect people from being killed or injured through the use of munitions (firearms and explosive devices) and the approach is consistent with the PSNI’s overriding objective of Keeping People Safe.
These stop and search powers do not require reasonable suspicion and may therefore lead to a lower arrest rate than those that do require reasonable suspicion.