LONDON — A public investigation that found London police strip-searched hundreds of children has triggered alarm about the “traumatic” practice and a wider probe of potential abuses around the country.
The children’s commissioner for England said she was “unconvinced” that the police were “consistently considering children’s welfare” after her report found that another adult was not there during nearly a quarter of the searches. This was despite a law requiring the presence of a parent, guardian or social worker.
“A police power that is as intrusive and traumatic for children as a strip search must be treated with the utmost care and responsibility,” said Commissioner Rachel de Souza, who published the report Monday.
She pledged to investigate police forces around the country. “Sorry isn’t good enough,” she said after announcing the findings, which London Mayor Sadiq Khan called “gravely concerning.”
The probe began after the case of a Black schoolgirl in 2020 prompted protests in east London. Female officers strip-searched the 15-year-old, identified as “Child Q” in British media and in the report to protect her privacy, on school grounds without another adult present and while she was menstruating. Her mother was not notified.
A local review said earlier this year that while the child was undressed because of suspicions she was carrying cannabis, officers did not uncover any drugs, and it concluded that racism probably influenced their approach. The incident distressed the girl to the extent that she was referred for psychological support.
“Child Q was not an isolated issue,” according to de Souza, who said the case indicated deeper problems with protecting children.
In an email, the Metropolitan Police said Tuesday that the agency was working to “balance the policing needed for this type of search with the considerable impact it can have on young people.”
After the uproar over Child Q, police officers in her London borough received training on racial bias including not treating Black children as adults. The London police force said it has made changes such as raising the level of approval necessary before an officer initiates such a strip-search and launching a review of its policy for searching minors.
The commissioner’s report acknowledged the city’s police force had “committed to several changes,” while recommending more training and scrutiny. But some activists called for an end to strip-searching children, rather than attempts to improve it with best practices.
Protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in 2020, which spread around the world including to Britain, pushed the country to contend with its own policing system, including the power for officers to stop and search people based on suspicions of carrying weapons or other criminal activity. Data shows that Black people are stopped at disproportionate rates.
The latest probe shows that of all the boys strip-searched each year, more than half were Black, as described by the officer. In 2018, it was 75 percent, fueling concerns of racial profiling.
Half of all the searches of children led to no further action, which calls into question whether they were necessary at all, de Souza said. And in 1 in 5 cases, the search was labeled at “another location,” so it was not possible to determine where it took place, the report says.
British accountability and children’s groups called for greater transparency in the use of police powers. “This problem won’t be limited to one police force in one part of the country,” said Anna Edmundson, head of policy and public affairs at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
For Kevin Blowe, campaigns coordinator at the Network for Police Monitoring, the “horrifying” use of strip-searches on children “is part of the bigger picture of failing to see young people as needing help far more than enforcement.”
He said the figures show why many young people “have a deep-rooted mistrust and a sense of powerlessness about their treatment” by the police, especially in London’s most diverse or poorest communities. “We support an end to the use of strip-searches on children. The police have shown they cannot be trusted with this power,” he said.