Dr Kath Murray is a Research Fellow at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) based at the University of Edinburgh.
Earlier this year Dr Murray won the Outstanding Early Career Impact award in our Celebrating Impact Prize 2016.
This is the second blog in a series which looks into the research behind the five successful awards, whilst touching on how the winning academics will spend their £10,000 prize.
In January 2014, police use of stop and search in Scotland hit the headlines. The publication of key findings from my ESRC/Scottish Government funded PhD revealed for the first time, the extraordinary scale of stop and search in Scotland, the fact that most searches lacked legal authority or reasonable suspicion, and fell disproportionately on young people. As a rough guide to the size of the matter, police records showed that in 2012/13, officers recorded more stop searches and seizures on 16 to 19 year olds than the population of 16 to 19 year olds in Scotland.
Published into a heated political climate (in the first year of Scotland’s newly established single police service and in the run up to the referendum on Scottish Independence) the report was met with a defensive response by Police Scotland and the Scottish Government. Despite considerable efforts to close down the research, the findings nonetheless gained traction, sparking a controversy that within the space of eighteen months, led to legal reform and a sharp fall in the number of recorded searches. At the time of writing, new training is in the pipeline, a statutory Code of Practice is imminent and the practice of searching people without suspicion appears to have more or less ended.
Impact, academia and activism
The rise and fall of mass stop and search in Scotland throws into sharp relief some salient points on research impact. Firstly, that the process is inherently political and that political reputations, as well as established ways of thinking, can put a spanner in the research works. As a signature policy of Police Scotland’s Chief Constable Sir Stephen House and a 2011 SNP Manifesto commitment, in this instance it was clear that no amount of research evidence or stakeholder engagement would shift the prevailing outlook on intensive stop and search.
Second, the story shows how difficult or unwelcome research findings can nevertheless gain traction. Finding myself (at the time, a PhD student) positioned outside the unfolding debate, I set about getting the messages across in other ways, principally through the media, parliamentarians and advocacy groups, through writing for general audiences and generally flagging up the issue at any given opportunity. As a cautionary note, writing both for non-peer review and peer review is time-consuming, and may mean prioritising one over the other. Also, publicly nailing your colours to the mast can be uncomfortable and limit access to professional networks. This is all felt more acutely in a small country like Scotland, where for most policy areas, the key decision makers can be brought together in one room. Still, despite these drawbacks, I would maintain that when publicly funded research is faced with a closed door that we need to shout a bit louder. Also, as a cheerful aside, writing for the press or social media is a fabulous exercise in how to effectively distil and communicate research findings.
Policing and parliamentary oversight: The due diligence project
It’s nearly three years on now and I’m in the fortunate position of having a hefty sum of ESRC Impact Prize money to spend on knowledge exchange. As a pretty thrifty independent researcher, £10,000 will go a long way – and after much humming and ha-ing, I’ve decided to take up one of the key concerns that surfaced in the stop and search controversy; that of accountability and scrutiny.
In the case of stop and search, the fact that recorded search rates reached such extraordinarily high levels related in part to lack of robust scrutiny mechanisms (a lack of published data or formal oversight). Applying these observations to Scottish policing more generally, I’m interested in how some of the other problems that have beset Police Scotland in the last few years might relate to the legislative proceedings that established the single service (I’ve done some light-touch preliminary analysis). Might for instance, some of Police Scotland’s problems be allied to the fact that the most significant policing reform in living memory was whisked through all three parliamentary stages in only four months?
In many ways, the project isn’t about Scottish policing per se; it’s about democratic oversight, due diligence and how these principles translate into practice. There is currently a diverse groundswell of opinion for parliamentary reform in Scotland. Using the most significant public service reform since devolution as a case study, the aim is to bring further research evidence to this debate.
Read the impact case study: Changing stop and search legislation in Scotland