the children’s commissioner for England has denounced the Metropolitan police’s record on child protection after new data revealed that 650 children were strip-searched over a two-year period and the majority were found to be innocent of the suspicions against them.
Dame Rachel de Souza said she was not convinced that the force was “consistently considering children’s welfare and wellbeing” after police data showed that in almost a quarter of cases (23%) an appropriate adult was not present during the search, despite this being a requirement under statutory guidance.
She was also concerned by ethnic disproportionality after the data showed that of children aged 10 to 17 who were strip-searched between 2018 and 2020, almost three out of five (58%) were black, as described by the officer. For 2018 only the figure rose to 75%. In Greater London, 19% of 10- to 17-year-olds are black.
De Souza questioned how far this “intrusive and traumatising” practice was necessary after figures showed that in 53% of cases no further action was taken. “This low level of successful searches arguably indicates that this intrusive practice may well not be justified or necessary in all cases.”
Her damning report, published on Monday, also raised concerns about “a lack of appropriate oversight” of police practice surrounding strip-searches after the data revealed that in one in five cases there was no way of knowing where it even took place.
Of 269 searches in 2021 for which the location of the search was recorded, 57% happened at a police station and 21% at a home address. De Souza’s report says 22% happened at another location but, “due to the low quality of recording practice, it is not possible to determine where these searches took place”.
The data showed the number of searches increased between 2018 and 2020, with 18% of all searches carried out in 2018, 36% in 2019 and 46% in 2020. Almost all of the children strip-searched (95%) were boys, and a quarter were 15 and under.
The commissioner launched her investigation following widespread outrage over the case of Child Q, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who was strip-searched by female Met officers in 2020 after she was wrongly suspected of carrying cannabis at her east London school.
The strip-search prompted days of protests in Hackney after it emerged the schoolgirl was searched without another adult present and in the knowledge that she was menstruating. Her parents of her were not contacted.
De Souza said she was “deeply shocked and concerned” after requesting the data from the Met police using her powers under the Children and Families Act. “I am also extremely concerned by the ethnic disproportionality shown in these figures, particularly given that ethnicity was determined to be such a key factor in the Child Q case.
“I am not reassured that what happened to Child Q was an isolated issue, but instead believe it may be a particularly concerning example of a more systemic problem around child protection within the Metropolitan police. I remain unconvinced that the Metropolitan police is consistently considering children’s welfare and wellbeing.” She now plans to seek the same data from all police forces.
The revelations in the report led to claims that the Met had been involved in “state-sanctioned” child abuse and the dehumanizing of children, and another example of institutional racism plaguing Britain’s biggest force.
Deborah Coles of Inquest said: “This report is about state-sanctioned child abuse operating outside the law. It also reveals racist and discriminatory policing and the dehumanizing of black children.”
Anna Edmundson, head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, said: “It’s vital policing leaders and government commit to eliminating racism, discrimination and bias from policing to prevent further harm to children.”
The findings in the report that the majority of those strip-searched children were innocent of police suspicions, which triggered a shocked and angry response within policing itself and among those who oversee the Met.
Andy George, president of the National Black Police Association, said: “We continue to see these patterns of bias which always fall against black communities. Most officers do not go about their duties believing they are doing harm, but because of systemic matters such as culture, training and a lack of representation, they are consistently treating black communities disproportionately.
“The Met police continue to exacerbate the low confidence from the black community in the UK, and the new commissioner must admit the systemic nature of racism which manifests in the Met to ensure meaningful measures are developed to tackle the lack of trust and confidence.”
A spokesperson for Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London as well as the capital’s police and crime commissioner with responsibility for the Met, said: “It is deeply concerning that there are so many cases of children being strip-searched by the Met without an appropriate adult present, and there remain serious wider issues with regard to disproportionality and the use of stop and search on young black boys.”
A Met police statement said: “The Metropolitan police is progressing at pace work to ensure children subject to intrusive searches are dealt with appropriately and respectfully. We recognize the significant impact such searches can have.
“We have already made changes and continue to work hard to balance the policing needed for this type of search with the considerable impact it can have on young people.
“We have ensured our officers and staff have a refreshed understanding of the policy for conducting a ‘further search’, particularly around the requirement for an appropriate adult to be present. We have also given officers advice around dealing with schools, ensuring that children are treated as children and considering safeguarding for those under 18.
“More widely, we have reviewed the policy for ‘further searches’ for those aged under 18. This is to assure ourselves the policy is appropriate, and also that it recognizes the fact a child in these circumstances may well be a vulnerable victim of exploitation by others involved in gangs, county lines and drug dealing.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism