The GOWISELY Procedure and Unlawful Stop and Search

A story which caught my eye last week –chiming very much with my own thoughts in recent months – was a report in the Guardian newspaper highlighting the fact that ‘stop and search’ procedures conducted by the Metropolitan Police had risen 40% during Lockdown (April – June 2020), equating to over 1,000 searches a day, and yet a lower proportion of these searches than normal (only 21%, down from 33%) led to arrests, fines or cautions. 

I believe this is strongly indicative of bored or otherwise at a ‘loose end’ Officers, with nothing better to do, indiscriminately targeting members of the public without the requisite legal suspicion of criminality. I would echo here the concerns expressed by Maurice Mcleod, chief executive of Race On The Agenda, who said – 

The increased proportion of stops that result in no action suggests that stops are being carried out based on officers pre- existing biases rather than on genuine suspicion of criminality…increasingly disproportionate use of these powers will further damage relations between the police and some of London’s communities. 

It is an undisputed fact that black people, especially black men, are disproportionately the target of Police stop/search procedures, and this has no doubt contributed significantly to the lack of trust black people have towards the Police, as encapsulated in a recent poll by the charity Hope Not Hate, which highlighted that 8 out of 10 black Britons felt that the Police were biased against people from their background/ ethnic group. 

This is despite the fact that Code A of PACE (The Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984), which governs the legal exercise of stop/search powers, specifically provides against Officers using generic “personal factors” – including a person’s race/sex/appearance – as a basis for suspicion of that individual (para 2.2B of Code A). 

Many of the cases which I handle illustrate the human stories behind these statistics. Take, for example, my client James, a black man who was going about his lawful business in London in January 2019, and who was targeted by a (literal) bus load of Metropolitan officers who piled out of their vehicle and ordered him to halt. 

James had being doing nothing more mundane than posting a letter, and we can be sceptical that the officer’s purported suspicions that he was in possession of drugs were anything more than – shall we say – skin deep. 

The officers exiting their vehicle, ignored a white man who was present and quickly surrounded James, stating that he had been behaving suspiciously and they wanted to search him under the Misuse of Drugs Act. However, their grounds for suspicion appeared to be little more than a perception that James had ‘started to walk away’ on seeing their vehicle. 

The distinct impression I drew from watching this video was that the officers had been looking for a stop/search ‘subject’ to ‘blood’ a junior colleague i.e find someone (a black man?) to practice delivering his “GOWISELY” procedure. More apparently experienced officers can be heard orchestrating the search and prompting the younger officer as to what to say. 

What is GOWISELY? 

GOWISELY is an acronym used by officers as an ‘aide memoire’ for the information they are supposed to give to a stop/search subject, prior to commencing the search, to ensure compliance with Code A of PACE. If the GOWISELY procedure is not followed, then the search is highly likely to have been unlawful – 

Grounds – A clear explanation of the reasons for the Officer’s search, i.e why he finds you suspicious

Object – What the Officer will be looking for (e.g drugs)

Warrant – Warrant card to be produced, if the Officer is not in uniform

Identity – The Officer must state their name and collar number  (except in terrorism cases, where the Officer can provide just his collar number)

Station – The Officer must identify the station at which he is based

Entitlement – The Officer must inform you of your entitlement to a copy of the stop/search record (which will be either handwritten or, increasingly, electronically recorded)

Legal – The Officer must specify the legislation under which he is searching you e.g the Misuse of Drugs Act

You – The Officer must clearly explain to you, that you are being detained for the purpose of a search. 

However, GOWISELY is not a magic spell which officers can use as a shield against a valid complaint or claim for damages. Simply because the words have been said, does not mean that the officer’s action in conducting the search is lawful, and in my experience – as in James’s case – officers all too often ride rough-shod over the other sections of Code A, whilst paying ‘lip service’ to the GOWISELY speech. 

First and foremost, the grounds for the search must be based on a genuine and objectively reasonable suspicion held by the officer, and, as highlighted above, that does not include generic assumptions about a person because of their race/ sex or other factors of appearance. 

Furthermore, para 3.2 of Code A enjoins officers not to use force unless it is established that the person being searched is resistant/ unwilling to co- operate. “Reasonable force” – according to Code A (if not the general practice of Officers on the street) – is a “last resort” if absolutely necessary to conduct the search/ detain a person, and hence should not be the ‘norm’. 

In the case of my client James, however, as the body camera footage indisputably testifies, the officers took hold of James’s hands as soon as they commenced the search, as if it were a simple matter of course for them, and, in my opinion, without any reasonable, lawful justification for that use of force. Up until that point, James had been polite and entirely peaceable towards the officers. I feel that all too often, officers are guilty of the kind of lazy thinking which, as I have highlighted in an earlier blog, leads them to equate a reason to arrest with justification for handcuffing, and in the type of incident we are dealing with here, leads them to consider a stop/search subject’s body equally ‘fair game’ for automatic use of force, whether that be laying on of hands, pulling a person’s arms, twisting them behind his back or indeed, handcuffing him. 

When James did no more than protest about two officers unnecessarily holding his hands whilst another officer searched him (he was not refusing the search), matters quickly escalated with  numerous officers combining to force James’s hands behind his back, handcuff him, kick him, force him against a wall – and then drag him to their van stating he was under arrest for “obstruction” of the search. 

James is far from being the only client I am currently representing who has experienced such unjustified uses of force.

Anthony, another client of mine and another black man, was, during the course of a ‘negative’ stop search by West Midlands Police, left at the end of the search free to go about his business…with a broken elbow. All indications are that Anthony, like James, had been politely engaging with the officers – doing no more than, as was his right, requesting information as to the basis of the search – and, just like James, was on the end of almost immediate and almost certainly gratuitous force. One of the officers, indeed, demonstrated his disregard for Anthony and his assumption that use of force was normal in these circumstances, no big deal perhaps, by mocking James’s exclamations of distress and requests for assistance with his broken arm with the words “You’ll win a BAFTA for this…” 

The claims for Anthony, James and many others are continuing. Perhaps by succeeding in claims for damages for individuals like my clients, we will begin to change the police culture of both unnecessary stops and unnecessarily violent searches, which the Guardian’s figures and my own day-to-day experience indicate is a significant ongoing problem. 

Officers need to police the streets; and through the legal mechanisms of complaints and claims, and journalistic reportage, we need to police the powers they use on those streets, otherwise the trust of many people and communities in this country’s system of law and order, may be irreparably damaged.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.