Police more than six times more likely to strip-search black children

<span>The Child Q scandal, when a black teenage girl was strip-searched at school in east London, led to protests outside Stoke Newington police station in London.</span><span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA</span>
The Child Q scandal, when a black teenage girl was strip-searched at school in east London, led to protests outside Stoke Newington police station in London.Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Black children are more than six times more likely than white children to be subjected to a strip-search by police, a new study shows.

Of the forces in England and Wales that provided data for the study, 10 showed a disparity where black people were 10 times more likely to be strip-searched. Sussex police were 18 times more likely to subject a black person to a strip search.

The study by the Runnymede Trust analysed official data from the Home Office on the practice, under which people detained in police custody are told they must take off their clothes.

Black adults were 4.7 times more likely than white adults to be told they must strip, and black children are 6.5 times more likely than their white counterparts.

The data covers the year until March 2023 and the trust says the data is another example of institutional racism, which most forces deny exists.

The statistics showed that black people were more likely than white people to be strip-searched in all bar one of the forces included in the study. The exception was North Wales police, which did not use the tactic in the year examined, the last for which data is available.

The practice attracted controversy after the Child Q scandal in 2020, when a 15-year-old black girl was strip-searched at school in east London. No cannabis, the grounds for the search, was found.

The force at the centre of the Child Q scandal, the Metropolitan police, is the biggest user of strip searching, the study reported. The Met carried out around a third of strip searches in England and Wales in the year to March 2023.

Nearly half of strip-searches carried out on children in London were on black children, who comprise 16.9% of London’s child population.

Dr Shabna Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, said: “Strip searches are inherently violent, humiliating and harmful, especially for children.

“Strip-searching is such an invasive procedure, and when deployed with this level of racialised disproportionality, by police forces riddled with institutional racism, the harm reaches way beyond the individual child or person.

“If we actually want to build safer communities and safeguard our children, we need to invest in our social infrastructure and ensure people have the opportunities and resources to thrive and flourish.”

The government is consulting on changes, and last year the children’s commissioner called for a series of reforms after her own study, which covered figures up to March 2022. It accused forces of widespread abuse of their power.

A report by Louise Casey, commissioned by the Met and also published last year, found the force to be institutionally racist and plagued by discrimination that was “baked in”. The Met rejected the label.

The police forces have promised change, but are unable to explain the racial disparity.

Assistant chief constable Andrew Mariner, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for stop and search, said: “We welcome a recent government consultation which would require any strip searches of children to be approved by a senior officer of at least inspector rank.

“The landmark Police Race Action Plan has the backing of every chief constable and commits our service to anti-racism, including proactively challenging racial disparity in the use of our powers.

“The plan is working … to develop a series of major reforms to all police stops, including strip-searches as well as things like stop and search, which will focus on elements such as racial disparities, supervision, adultification and safeguarding.”

The Met said it had made changes since the Child Q scandal: “We had been overusing this power, and work locally and across the Met has significantly reduced our numbers.

“We wish these types of searches were not necessary, but sadly we know there are children in London being exploited to carry drugs and weapons for others, as well as being involved in criminality.

“We are working hard to understand and minimise the impact of these types of searches, as we know they can have a significant impact on young people, as well as tackle issues such as disproportionality.”

Sussex police said it “recognises disparities impacting black and ethnic minority groups and is actively addressing these issues as part of its commitment to becoming an anti-racist organisation”.

The force said that as well as training for officers on searches, “strip-searches of black detainees are specifically reviewed by an external, independent scrutiny panel on a monthly basis to identify disproportionality or learning, and ensure they comply with relevant legislation”.