LONDON — Hundreds of children were strip-searched in London by the police over a three-year period, according to a report released on Monday by Britain’s top official for children, who said she was “unconvinced” that the authorities were sufficiently judicious in employing the invasive practice in light of the potential harm.
The report, which found that about 650 children had been strip-searched between 2018 and 2020, was commissioned by Rachel de Souza, Britain’s commissioner for children, after a young Black schoolgirl, identified in the report as “Child Q,” had been strip-searched in 2020 by police officers on school grounds without her mother being notified and another adult present.
Ms. de Souza suggested that what happened to Child Q was not an isolated episode, after the report warned that protocols to protect children were not always followed, including ensuring the presence of a parent, guardian, social worker or caregiver during such searches.
“A police power that is as intrusive and traumatic for children as a strip-search must be treated with the utmost care and responsibility,” she said, calling the report’s findings “deeply concerning.”
The requirement that an adult be present during strip-searches of minors was not followed in 23 percent of the 650 cases, according to the report. It also found that police officers found nothing to suggest further action was needed in slightly more than half the total number of strip-searches.
Ninety-five percent of those who were strip-searched were boys, according to the report, nearly 60 percent of whom were Black, adding to concerns about racial profiling in the “stop and search” approach used by the London police.
As protests over the police killing of George Floyd in the United States swept Britain in 2020, critics pointed to data that showed Black people were four times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched, and London’s mayor promised that the city would hire more new recruits from minority backgrounds.
The Metropolitan Police said in a statement that it was working to balance policing needs for strip-searches with “the considerable impact it can have on young people.” The force has already made changes, including more oversight in the authorization of such searches, the statement said, and it has reviewed its policy for searches of people under the age of 18.
The disproportionate numbers of Black boys being searched was worrying, Ms. de Souza said, adding that several other cases of strip-searches of children were being investigated by England’s police misconduct watchdog.
The strip-search of Child Q, which was done by female police officers, was touched off when teachers said they smelled cannabis on her, but the officers did not report uncovering cannabis or any other illegal substance. Nevertheless, the experience was so distressing for Child Q, who had been menstruating at the time, that she was referred for psychological support.
A review of the case by a local commissioner charged with safeguarding children that was published in March found that the decision to strip-search the girl “was insufficiently attuned to her best interests or right to privacy,” and concluded that racism had influenced the decision. The repercussions on Child Q’s emotional health, it said, were profound and ongoing.
Local officials at the time called the findings appalling, said they were committed to working on antiracism policies and called for policing authorities to improve guidance about the proper ways to search children.
Since then, police officers in the east London borough where Child Q was searched have undergone training to combat racial bias in an effort to prevent them from treating Black children as adults.
Given that the London police carry out a total of about 200,000 “stop and searches” a year, the 650 children who were strip-searched in those three years was comparatively small, said Matt Ashby, a lecturer in crime science at University College London.
Still, given that such searches are traumatic for children, even if done according to protocol, it is imperative that the police perform them only when necessary, Mr. Ashby said.
“If they’re stop and searching people for weapons,” he said, “it’s quite different to stop and searching people for cannabis.”
The issue adds to the larger mistrust that many young people, especially those of color, feel toward people in authority, said Kevin Blowe, campaigns coordinator for Netpol, an organization that monitors policing for signs that it is excessive, discriminatory or threatens civil rights.
“The horrifying use of strip-searches on children reflects a much deeper problem with the Metropolitan Police’s perception of young people out on London’s streets as an inherent threat,” he said.
Young people in London’s most diverse, poorest or working-class communities were “likely to say the police simply cannot — will not — protect them,” he said.
Further data on the number of children being strip-searched nationally in Britain will be published later this year, Ms. de Souza said, calling for nationwide oversight, though she did not offer specifics.
While the police had committed to learning from the case of Child Q, she said, that lesson meant that it could not be repeated. “That’s what sorry means,” she added. “It means it won’t happen again.”
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