The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is calling for a substantial review of policing powers under the laws relating to the strip searches of children, to improve safeguarding and prioritise the welfare of minors.
It’s one of a series of learning recommendations the organisation has made to the Home Office, National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) and the College of Policing (COP) to review and make changes to national guidance, policy and training relating to searches involving the exposure of intimate body parts.
The recommendations follow independent investigations into multiple incidents where children have been strip searched by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), including the search involving the exposure of intimate body parts of a 15-year-old Black girl – known as Child Q – at a school in Hackney, north-east London in 2020.
The investigation into the ‘strip search’ of Child Q, which began in May 2021 after the MPS referred complaints to the IOPC made on behalf of the child and the school, was recently completed. The IOPC can now confirm that four MPS officers will be facing disciplinary proceedings for their actions and conduct during the incident.
The strip search of Child Q
The search of Child Q occurred on 3 December 2020 after police were called to the school following suspicions by staff that Child Q was in possession of cannabis. This followed a search by staff of her bag and outer clothing where no drugs were found.
The child was subject to a search involving the removal of clothing by two female officers under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, while two male officers and school staff remained outside the room where the search took place. No drugs were found during the search.
The IOPC's investigation looked into whether the grounds for the search and the conduct of officers complied with relevant local and national policies, procedures, guidance and legislation.
The IOPC also investigated whether officers treated Child Q differently because of her race and sex, and the officers’ communication with school staff during and after the incident. Following the conclusion of its investigation, the IOPC determined that three MPS officers should face a gross misconduct hearing for potential breaches of the police standards of professional behaviour relating to duties and responsibilities, conduct, and equality and diversity.
Some of the allegations the three police constables face are that:
- The decision to undertake the search was inappropriate.
- There was no consultation with a supervisor to obtain authorisation before carrying out the search.
- There was no appropriate adult present during the search.
- Child Q was discriminated against by officers because of her race and sex.
- A fourth officer, a police constable will face a disciplinary meeting relating to there being no appropriate adult present during the search. They will also undergo the reflective practice review process to consider further learning opportunities.
IOPC has recommended that the MPS consider sending formal letters of apology to Child Q and her mother.
IOPC director Steve Noonan said: “The ‘strip search’ of Child Q, a 15-year-old girl, at her school in Hackney caused widespread concern. We have investigated the circumstances surrounding how this child was treated that day as fully as possible.
“We’ve found that four officers involved in the incident should face disciplinary proceedings for the parts they played. Ultimately it will be for that disciplinary panel to decide whether the allegations against them are proven. We will now be liaising with the Met Police around disciplinary proceedings. We’ve kept Child Q’s representatives and the officers involved updated throughout our investigation.
“Since this incident came to our attention, we have investigated four other incidents following referrals from the Met where children were strip searched in custody.
“Any person subject to a search involving the exposure of intimate body parts is in a vulnerable position and they are entitled to be treated with respect and courtesy. While strip searches can be necessary for the safety of both the subjects and officers, it’s important that it’s only carried out when absolutely essential, particularly when used on children.
“As a result of our investigations, we have identified a series of recommendations that we believe are pivotal to make effective changes to legislation and improve national guidance and training for officers to ensure the safety and welfare of children are prioritised when subject to searches involving the exposure of intimate body parts.
“One of the areas of learning we’ve identified is around ensuring that officers across England and Wales understand their duties and responsibilities regarding the role of an appropriate adult during a strip search.”
These recommendations follow learning recommendations the IOPC previously issued to the Met Police last year while its investigations were ongoing. The IOPC also held a roundtable meeting earlier this year with relevant policing bodies and key stakeholders concerning strip searches of children to discuss how organisations need to work together ensuring the wellbeing and safeguarding needs of children are met.
The IOPC have begun consulting with relevant policing bodies and the Home Office on our latest national recommendations on the use of searches involving the exposure of intimate body parts and these will be published in due course.
Other child strip search investigations
The IOPC has investigated a total of five cases involving the strip search of children following referrals by the MPS. All but one of the investigations has now concluded. A brief summary of the four other investigations:
- An incident where a 15-year-old girl was arrested and detained on suspicion of knifepoint robbery and then transported to custody where they were subject to a wand search and outer clothing search at Walworth Police station in December 2020. While in custody, a sharpened wooden item fell from her clothing. The child subsequently handed over a Stanley knife and was then subject to a strip search in custody. We found the strip search was carried out in line with policy and procedures. However we found a police sergeant should face a misconduct meeting for breaching the standards of professional behaviour of duties and responsibilities, including allegations they failed to sufficiently supervise the wand or physical search carried out by another officer. Three other officers will also undergo the reflective practice review process relating to issues identified around the supervision of the girl in custody and the initial wand search.
- The strip search of a child in custody by MPS officers in 2022 where there were concerns about the suitability of the appropriate adult given her understanding of English and where no interpreter was sought. We found a custody sergeant should face a misconduct meeting for breaches of the standards of professional behaviour for allegations relating to their actions during the incident, including that they failed to ensure a suitable appropriate adult attended the strip search. We also found the child may have been treated less favourably due to their race.
- The arrest and subsequent strip search of a 16-year-old boy in Ilford, east London in January 2020, which was referred to us by the MPS in June 2022. We investigated a complaint which included allegations of excessive force by police during the arrest. We found no evidence to indicate any force used was unnecessary or unreasonable and we found the strip search, although there was no appropriate adult present, was carried out in line with MPS policy and policing powers. We found no indication that any officer behaved in a manner that would justify disciplinary proceedings.
- The arrest and subsequent strip search of a 16-year-old boy at Bethnal Green Police station in October 2020. Our investigation began in June 2022 following a complaint referral from the MPS and is in its final stages. At this stage there is no indication that any officers may have behaved in a manner that would justify disciplinary proceedings.