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Dr Kath Murray

Dr Murray’s PhD research changed stop and search research legislation and won her ESRC’s Outstanding Early Career Impact Award. How did she do it?


Doctor Kath Murray's doctoral research on police- public encounters revealed very high levels of stop and search in Scotland, which sparked a national debate. Her research has resulted in new legislation, major changes in police practise, and a 93% drop in stop searches and seizures.


Her head of school, professor Richard Sparks, commented that, “for a doctoral project to have initiated a major public debate on an aspect of police practise and led directly to a change in legislation is unprecedented, in my experience”.


So how did she do it? We caught up with her to find out.


1. “what made you choose this topic for your PhD research? At what point did you realise you might be able to actually change stop and search legislation?”


“The original PhD set out to examine the impact of police-public encounters on public confidence in the police. I was interested as to what stop and search encounters looked like in Scotland, and given a lack of published statistics, I put in Freedom of Information requests to the 8 legacy police forces. 

At this point, it was clear that the project would be controversial.  The data documented over 1.2 million encounters over a six year period, Most of which lacked legal authority, fell disproportionately on young people, and raised serious concerns around human rights, legality, legitimacy accountability.


Still, the prospect of reform seemed unlikely. Whilst the figures were shocking, volume stop and search was a signature policy of Police Scotland’s Chief Constable Sir Stephen House Under 2011 SNP Manifesto commitment, plus the SNP had an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament.


The possibility of legislative change came about further down the line, once the research was in the public domain and the issue had gained a strong foothold in the media, which led to something of a perfect storm. Media coverage prompted political engagement, and vice versa, as opposition MSPs raised questions, under the Scottish Parliament Justice Sub-committee on policing took up the issue.”

2. Many PhD students would have just done their research and let others worry about the impact. What motivated you to act on your findings?”


“Whilst volume stop and search was largely presented as a 'Police Scotland' story in the media, in fact the policy went back a couple of decades in some parts of Scotland. Recorded search rates were disproportionately high under some of the old legacy police forces, but this had mostly passed unchallenged, at least publicly, and no one was really speaking out on the issue. Added to this, the research was initially met with an exceptionally defensive response by Police Scotland and the Scottish Government. Faced with a mixture of institutional apathy and hostility, the motivation was principally one of social responsibility, coupled with public interest.”


“3. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?”


“At first, it seemed that no amount of research evidence or stakeholder engagement would shift the prevailing outlook. As such, I set about getting the messages across in other ways: through comment and articles in the media, contact with parliamentarians and advocacy groups, open-access reports and briefings, and articles written for general audiences.”

4. “What advice would you give to other early career researchers who want their research to make a difference?”


“In some respects, it's difficult to generalise. These were exceptional circumstances on a number of counts, including the size of the research problem, the heat and politics around policing following the merger of Scotland’s 8 forces into a single force in April 2013, unrelatedly, the level of media interest. What I think is clear, is that making a difference is not straight forward, especially when the findings are controversial. Challenging existing institutional arrangements and powerful authority figures is not easy, and publicly nailing your colours to the mast can be uncomfortable, particularly in a small country like Scotland that has close-knit policy and academic circles. On the other hand, I would still maintain that when publicly funded research is faced with a closed door that we need to shout louder.”


Contact details:

Twitter: @kathmurray1


'Why have we funded this research? On politics, research and news-making criminology' by Kath Murray is due for publication in Criminology and Criminal justice in 2017.

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