The Children’s Commissioner has said “sorry is not good enough” after it emerged children are strip-searched by the Metropolitan Police without an appropriate adult present in almost a quarter of cases – with black boys disproportionately targeted.
The research, published by the commissioner, revealed that officers in the force carried out intrusive searches on 650 young people aged 10 to 17 between 2018 and 2020.
It was commissioned following the case of Child Q, a 15-year-old black girl who was strip-searched at her east London school without an appropriate adult present. She was falsely suspected of carrying hashish.
Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner, said the case had been wrongly described as “a one-off”.
She told Sky News: “I’m really shocked and sad to say it’s not.”
Dame Rachel urged all police forces across England to report data on how many children have been searched.
“I want to see change,” she said. “Sorry isn’t good enough.”
She added: “In 50% of these strip searches, nothing more was done. It really raises questions for me as to whether they were proportionate and should have been carried out.”
The experience, she said, would be “traumatic” for any child: “In a strip search, your most intimate parts are searched.”
Dame Rachel also said she was concerned about “gaps in the data” recorded by the Met Police.
“For about one in five of the strip searches, they can’t even tell me where they took place, so the data collection needs to improve.”
It is a legal requirement that a suitable adult be present, except in emergency situations.
Of the 650 children searched over the three years, 19 out of every 20 were boys and 58% were described by the responding officer.
Katrina Ffrench, the founder and director of Unjust UK, a not-for-profit organization which seeks to address discrimination in the criminal justice system, said she was “incredibly appalled” by the figures.
“The figures are so high because they show there is a problem within the Metropolitan Police and its treatment of black communities across London,” she said.
“Unfortunately, young black children are not afforded the same innocence and rights as their white peers.”
In 2018, more than two-thirds of strip searches without any other presence were black boys.
Kevin Donoghue, a lawyer who has represented children elsewhere in the country who have been through the experience, said: “The fallout for these children is very significant. The common traits and expressions given to me in dealing with these cases are personal intrusion.
“It is a breach by police officers that is very seriously felt and a breach of personal integrity and their bodily autonomy that has been invaded and it is an incident that cannot be undone.
“An apology is not enough. Compensation is not enough.”
In the case of Child Q, four officials are under investigation for gross misconduct and a serious case review has been carried out.
The Met Police said it is “progressing apace” to ensure children who are subject to intrusive searches are treated with respect.
It said new measures have been introduced which require an inspector to give authority before a search takes place.
The force added: “We have ensured that our officers and staff have a renewed understanding of the guidelines for conducting an ‘additional search’, particularly around the requirement for an appropriate adult to be present.
“We have also given officers advice on dealing with schools, ensuring children are treated as children and considering safeguarding for those under 18.”