LONDON – Hundreds of children were searched in London by police over a three-year period, according to a report released Monday by Britain’s top children’s official, who said she was “unconvinced” that authorities were sufficiently judicious to use the invasive practice in light of the potential damage.
The report, which found that around 650 children had been strip-searched between 2018 and 2020, was commissioned by Rachel de Souza, the UK’s children’s commissioner, after a young black schoolgirl, identified in the report as “Child Q” had been searched in 2020 by police officers on school grounds without her mother being notified and another adult present.
De Souza suggested that what happened to Child Q was not an isolated episode, after the report warned that protocols to protect children were not always followed, including ensuring the presence of a parent, guardian, social worker or carer during such searches.
“A police force as intrusive and traumatic for children as a strip search must be treated with the utmost care and responsibility,” she said, calling the report’s findings “deeply troubling.”
The requirement that an adult be present during strip searches of minors was not followed in 23 percent of the 650 cases, according to the report. It also found that police officers found no indication that further action was needed in just over half of the total number of strip searches.
Ninety-five percent of those searched were boys, according to the report, nearly 60 percent of whom were black, adding to concerns about racial profiling in the “stop and search” approach used by London police.
As protests over the police killing of George Floyd in the US swept Britain in 2020, critics pointed to data showing black people were four times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched, and London’s mayor promised the city would hire more new recruits from minority background.
The Metropolitan Police said in a statement that it is working to balance the police’s need for strip searches with “the significant impact it can have on young people”. The force has already made changes, including more oversight of the approval of such searches, the statement said, and it has reviewed its policy on searches of under-18s.
The disproportionate number of black boys being strip-searched was worrying, Ms de Souza said, adding that several other cases of strip-searching of children were being investigated by England’s police watchdog.
The strip search of Child Q, which was conducted by female police officers, was touched upon when teachers said they smelled cannabis on her, but the officers did not report detecting cannabis or other illegal substances. Still, the experience was so distressing for Child Q, who was menstruating at the time, that she was referred for psychological support.
A review of the case by a local commissioner charged with protecting children published in March found that the decision to strip-search the girl “was not sufficiently aligned with her best interests or right to privacy” and concluded that racism had influenced the decision. . The consequences on Child Q’s emotional health, it said, were profound and ongoing.
Local officials at the time called the findings appalling, said they were committed to working on anti-racism policies and called on law enforcement to improve guidance on the proper ways to search for children.
Since then, police officers in the east London borough where Child Q was searched have undergone training to combat racial bias in an attempt to prevent them from treating black children as adults.
Given that London police conduct a total of about 200,000 “stop and frisks” a year, the 650 children strip-searched over those three years were relatively small, said Matt Ashby, a lecturer in crime science at University College London.
Nevertheless, given that such searches are traumatic for children, even if done according to protocol, it is important that the police carry them out only when necessary, Mr. Ashby said.
“If they’re stopping and searching for guns,” he said, “stopping and searching for cannabis is quite different.”
The problem adds to the greater mistrust that many young people, especially those of color, feel for people in authority, said Kevin Blowe, campaign co-ordinator for Netpol, an organization which monitors policing for signs it is excessive, discriminatory or threatens civil rights.
“The appalling use of strip searches on children reflects a much deeper problem with the Metropolitan Police’s perception of young people on London’s streets as an inherent threat,” he said.
Young people in London’s most diverse, poorest or working-class communities were “likely to say that the police simply cannot – will not – protect them, he said.
Further data on the number of children being searched nationally in the UK will be published later this year, Ms de Souza said, calling for nationwide oversight, although she gave no details.
While police had committed to learning from the case of Child Q, she said, the lesson meant it could not be repeated. “That’s what sorry means,” she added. “That means it won’t happen again.”