This week I was interviewed by Sky News about the police’s use of strip search on children aged between 10-17 years old. New data from Dame Rachel de Souza DBE, the Children’s Commissioner, brought the issue to the media’s attention.
In her report, the Commissioner (who I will refer to as the CCo) reviewed the results of Metropolitan Police data about the force’s use of strip searches on children.
She found that the Met strip-searched 650 children between 2018-2020, and that the force frequently ignored laws and professional guidance to do so.
Sky News asked me to contribute because I represent children in civil actions against the police who have been wrongly subjected to intimate searches.
As the deeply concerning Child Q case showed, it can be a traumatic and intrusive form of policing. She said that:
I can’t go a single day without wanting to scream, shout, cry or just give up.
“I feel like I’m locked in a box, and no one can see or cares that I just want to go back to feeling safe again, my box is collapsing around me, and no-one wants to help.
“I don’t know if I’m going to feel normal again. I don’t know how long it will take to repair my box. But I do know this can’t happen to anyone, ever again.
Her emotions are understandable. As I explained in the tv interview:
“There is a violation by police officers which is very severely felt and one of personal integrity and their bodily autonomy which has been invaded and it is an event that cannot be undone.”
Sadly, the CCo’s report confirmed many of the findings of the Child Q review report. This is what they show about how the police deal with child strip searches.
What happened to Child Q?
Child Q was a 15-year-old black girl. In 2020, she was at school in Hackney and pulled out of an exam, after teachers suspected she had cannabis and called the police.
During the incident, the girl was taken to the school’s medical room and strip-searched by two female Met police officers, while teachers remained outside. Her parents were not contacted and no “appropriate adult” (a carer, relative, or other trained person) was present.
Her intimate body parts were exposed and, knowing that she was menstruating, the officers made her remove her sanitary towel. No drugs were found.
Child Q’s case prompted the City & Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership (CHSCP) to conduct an emergency review.
Overlap between the Children’s Commissioner’s report on child strip searches by the Metropolitan Police and the Child Q review
The CCo’s report is brief, and worth reading in full. Among other things, the report’s findings were:
- The CCo report supports the (CHSCP) review authors’ finding that racial bias was a factor in the Child Q case. The CHSCP report authors said that:
racism (whether deliberate or not) was likely to have been an influencing factor in the decision to undertake a strip search.
The CCo offered hard data to support that opinion:
Ethnicity and disproportionality:
- Across 2018-2020, of boys searched, looking at the officer described ethnicity, 58% were Black, 20% were White, 16% were Asian, 5% were ‘other’ ethnicity and 2% did not have their ethnicity recorded. These figures should be compared against the ethnicity of 10-17 years olds in Greater 11 London in 2021: Black 19%, White 44%, Asian 22%, Mixed 10%, and Other 5%.
In every year between 2018-2020, over half of boys searched were Black. In 2018, 3 in 4 boys searched were Black (75%).
It stands to reason that Black people (and boys in particular) would be disproportionately subject to intrusive searches. Black people are seven times more likely to be stopped by the police after all.
- Supporting racial bias is the concept of “adultification”. The Child Q report authors say this:
concept is where adults perceive Black children as being older than they are. It is ‘a form of bias where children from Black, Asian and minoritised ethnic communities are perceived as being more ‘streetwise’, more ‘grown up’, less innocent and less vulnerable than other children. This particularly affects Black children, who might be viewed primarily as a threat rather than as a child who needs support’.
Again, the CCo found data to support the adultification bias (p.10 of her report):
- The overwhelming majority of strip searches were carried out on boys (over 95%) with under 5% of searches carried out on girls.
Boys aged 16-17 were the most likely to be searched, with 73% of searches carried out on boys in this age group.
- And yet, despite the serious and potentially life-changing effects of these intrusive searches, the tactic used on Child Q and (at least) 649 others between 2018-2020 is becoming more common:
The number of searches increased between 2018 and 2020, 18% of all searches were carried out in 2018, 36% in 2019 and 46% in 2020.
- Child Q’s case was not an outlier. In fact, the CCo found, the Met could not confirm if an Appropriate Adult was present in 23% of strip searches of 10-17 year olds between 2018-2020.
- And, as in Child Q’s case, in more than half (53%) of cases, no further action was taken after the strip search. As the CCo says:
“We question whether this low level of successful searches indicates that this intrusive practice is justified or necessary in all cases.”
How the police fail to uphold the law on the use of search powers
The CCo’s report only covers 2018-2020 and excluded 2021 even though some data was provided. She was forced to do this because of “serious data errors”.
As Dame de Souza drily notes at p.9 of her report:
“it is a matter of concern that the MPS is not able to readily account for the prevalence or appropriateness of strip searches involving children.”
This matters because it is a legal requirement that the police create, keep, and produce records relating to strip searches. The obligation is found in the general use of stop and search powers, and applies to both “bobbies on the beat” and their supervising officers, as shown in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984) (commonly known as PACE) Code A:
Monitoring and supervising the use of stop and search powers
5.1 Any misuse of stop and search powers is likely to be harmful to policing and lead to mistrust of the police by the local community and by the public in general.
Supervising officers must monitor the use of stop and search powers and should consider in particular whether there is any evidence that they are being exercised on the basis of stereotyped images or inappropriate generalisations.
Supervising officers must satisfy themselves that the practice of officers under their supervision in stopping, searching and recording is fully in accordance with this Code.
Supervisors must also examine whether the records reveal any trends or patterns which give cause for concern and, if so, take appropriate action to address this.
Debunking the concept of urgency to justify searches without an appropriate adult present
As I have previously written, the police are experts at spinning stories. But, no matter what they say, the Child Q and CCo reviews do not make them look good.
I expect that the police will try to justify child searches without an appropriate adult present by saying that there was an urgent risk of immediate harm to the child or someone else. This is because the concept of “urgency” is subjective, so the officer’s reasonably held belief would be considered.
But, as the Independent Office for Police Conduct notes in an April 2022 report, the police’s own College of Policing and Authorised Professional Practice state that searching children based on the smell of cannabis alone is “not good practice” because:
Where the grounds for a search are perceived to be weak, the legitimacy of the stop and search is undermined, which can leave people feeling unfairly targeted, reducing confidence in the police service.
Long-Standing Abuse of Search Powers
The CCo is clearly concerned by what she has seen about how the police strip search children. With good reason. This is not a new story. Nearly 6 years ago (on 31st October 2016) Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner, said:
Strip searches of children should only be undertaken under strict conditions, including the presence of an appropriate adult.
Searches such as these should not be used routinely and must only be done when there is a clear need based on a genuine belief that an item has been concealed – which a child or young person would not be allowed while in police custody. I am currently looking at the provision of appropriate adults to children in custody.
That quote related to the story of a 12-year-old girl who was strip searched without an appropriate adult present when police were searching for drugs. To have to bring this issue up again (about Child Q and many others) shows the police’s attitude to child welfare and safety.
What the CCo Wants to Happen
Dame Rachel said in the foreword to her report:
The Metropolitan Police has committed to learning lessons from this incident but the value in lessons being learnt comes from them not being repeated. That’s what sorry means, it means it won’t happen again.
I am deeply concerned by the information that I have received. I am not reassured that what happened to Child Q was an isolated issue, though it was certainly rare and the context unique. Instead, I believe it indicates more systemic problems around child protection. I remain unconvinced that the Metropolitan Police is consistently considering children’s welfare and wellbeing.
The CCo has called for data about child strip searches from the other 42 territorial police forces (find their contact details on our interactive map.) I expect it will show that this is a nationwide, systemic issue, as my own experience of representing children in these cases confirms.
Evidently, the police cannot be trusted to deal with it. The Home Office needs to step in to enforce a law (PACE), which the police are flagrantly flouting. As the CCo says (on p.7):
Ambition 1) Ensure the safeguarding of children is the top priority for the police when undertaking searches, by amending national guidance: The Home Office should amend Police And Criminal Evidence (PACE) Codes A and C to make it clear that strip searches of children should only be used when absolutely necessary. This guidance should also place a greater emphasis on a police officer’s duty to safeguard children during strip searches. This should include:
- Clear guidance on making a safeguarding referral whenever a child is strip searched;
- An emphasis on the need for an Appropriate Adult to be present;
- A clear definition of any situation where an Appropriate Adult is not needed, to minimise any ambiguity around the term ‘urgency’.
The Home Office should ensure changes are included in both PACE Code A and Code C. The College of Policing should update its guidance to reflect these changes and to recognise changes to practice made by the MPS. The Children’s Commissioner’s office will send this report to the Minister for Policing and work with the Home Office to achieve these changes.
This recommendation is not asking too much of the police. In fact, laws already exist to help Chief Constables enforce it. It is clearly referenced in PACE Code A (at point 1.1) which police officers are expected to follow and uphold:
the Children Act 2004, section 11, also requires chief police officers and other specified persons and bodies to ensure that in the discharge of their functions they have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of all persons under the age of 18.
This is an early test of new Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley
The CCo said she intends share her knowledge with Baroness Casey. She is conducting a review of the Metropolitan Police’s vetting, recruitment, and training procedures in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder by Wayne Couzens, one of the force’s officers.
But the CCo’s report covers things which happened under former Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick’s watch. I have been critical of her in the past, with good reason. She did such a bad job that the country’s biggest police force is now in special measures, a form of enhanced monitoring and oversight.
Dick’s replacement as Commissioner is Sir Mark Rowley. The Guardian reports that he got the job after:
Rowley pitched a 100-day plan to start turning the Met around, aware that more scandals and setbacks are to come, with some of the force’s leadership in denial about the severe trouble the organisation is in. He said the vast majority of Met staff were dedicated but he vowed to be “ruthless in removing those who are corrupting our integrity”.
Sir Mark Rowley must prioritise the issue of child strip searches by the Metropolitan Police. As the Child Q review and CCo’s report show, it is another systemic problem for the Met, not a “bad apples” one, even if the four officers in the Child Q case are now being investigated by the IOPC for gross misconduct.
Saying sorry now for something that happens routinely, such as not having an appropriate adult in nearly a quarter of child strip search cases, is hollow. Unless the police start following the law, and being held to account when they flout it, the public will conclude that police only enforce the rules that suit them. As I said in the Sky interview:
“An apology is not enough. Compensation is not enough.”
Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor with experience representing children in civil actions against the police. He is a member of the Police Action Lawyers Group and the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers.