In a few months’ time the results of the 2021 census will be published. This once-in-a-decade piece of work by the Office for National Statistics has been long awaited by organisations who need to plan their workforces and services to reflect local populations.
For too long now we have relied on the results of a 10-year-old census which no longer accurately represents the country.
In Devon and Cornwall we can realistically expect the census to show us that our communities are considerably more diverse than they were in 2011 as there has been a trend towards greater diversity over the decades.
This is a national as well as a local phenomenon, with the number of people identifying as white British in England and Wales decreasing from 87.4% in 2001 to 80.5% in 2011. The last census showed us that Devon was predominantly a white area, with 5.1% of black, Asian, and minority ethnic people reported, but I expect this percentage to have increased significantly when we review the up to date figures.
If this trend towards greater diversity continues it will pose a challenge to Devon and Cornwall Police which has made significant efforts to make its workforce more reflective of our communities in recent years. The new data will show how successful those efforts have been.
It will also mean that we have a much better understanding of how our officers perform. The force was lambasted last year when figures showed that black people were ‘12 times more likely’ to be stopped and searched than white residents of the force area.
While Devon and Cornwall Police was far from the worst in terms of this disparity these headlines did little to win the trust and confidence of those the force serves, particularly those from minority ethnic backgrounds.
Because the census data was at that time nine years old, and took no account of the 8m or so visitors we have every year to Devon and Cornwall (our resident population is around 1.7m), these figures, unfortunately, are at best misleading.
This poses a problem for me in my role as scrutineer of the Chief Constable because accurate data on everything from 101 call wait times to sexual offence is a critical tool to be able to hold him to account.
Presenting stop and search merely through the lens of racial disparity also fails to take account of the role this important tool does to keep people of all ethnicities safe from the threats of drugs and violent crime (two of four priority areas in my new Police and Crime Plan).
Stop and search data for the year to April 2021 was released last Thursday (18th Nov). It showed that a third of people stopped and searched by Devon and Cornwall Police were arrested, summonsed to court or had drugs or weapons seized from them.
Officers here used stop and search in the period 8,438 times to seize 993 items, including 62 offensive weapons, 74 items of stolen property and 803 quantities of drugs. On 20 occasions items were seized which related to ‘going equipped’ to commit a crime.
A total of 34% of stop and searches carried out by the force had a ‘positive outcome’ and the activity led to 1,102 arrests.
Of those subjected to a stop and search in the force area 5,626 were white and 160 were black. Based on ethnicity recorded in the 2011 census this indicates that black people were searched at a rate 11.1 times that of white people, a slight decrease from the 2019-20 rate of 11.9.
One of the many reasons I will welcome the new and accurate census data, which the ONS says will be released in late spring 2022, is that it will give us a better idea of ethnic disparity in stop and search.
I do not, however, want our residents and police officers to lose sight of the fact that effective use of this sometimes controversial method makes them and their loved ones less likely to be stabbed, have access to drugs or to have their homes broken into.
The truth is that at the moment we cannot accurately say what racial disparity in stop and search looks like. We do know, however, that this tactic took a considerable amount of knives and drugs out of our communities.