What is a police strip-search? Meaning and your rights explained

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The Metropolitan Police are under fire after a report shows hundreds of children have been subjected to “traumatic” police strip searches

The data obtained showed that 650 children aged 10 to 17 were strip searched by officers in London between 2018 and 2020.

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The figures showed that 95% of these were boys and 58% were described as black.

So what is a strip search? What powers do the police have and what does the situation entail?

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Here’s what you need to know.

Police officers fighting potential knife crimes stop and search people arriving in Liverpool by bus for traditional celebrations ahead of the festive season December 21, 2007, Liverpool, England

What is a strip search?

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Police conduct a strip search when officers are looking for hidden items, typically drugs or weapons, in a manner that removes more than just the outer layer of clothing, such as coats or jackets.

In England and Wales strip searches are carried out when a person is suspected of a crime or after a person has been arrested and is in custody.

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Strip searches can also be carried out at the airport and is known as an “extended hand search” where clothing is stripped down to the underwear – this is the limit that airport or contract screening staff can go.

What does a strip search involve?

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Partial strip searches remove outer layers – such as a coat or jacket – to make possible contraband easily visible. Distant objects can be searched by hand, and the person can be patted down – where an officer feels the body for abnormal objects. This can be done publicly.

A full strip-down must be done in private and will require people to remove all of their clothing down to their underwear — and in some cases, they may be asked to remove their underwear. This is also known as visual stripe search.

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In some situations, such as In prisons, for example, officers can also conduct a cavity search to look for objects. This is known as an “intimate search” and can only be done if the police have a warrant and approval from a senior official.

The goal of a strip search is for security purposes.

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Generally, a person of the same sex should perform the strip search – although many trans and non-binary people are denied this right.

What are the legal guidelines for a strip search?

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  • the reason for the search should be fully explained to you
  • at least two other people should be present at all times
  • the strip search should be performed by a person of the same gender (transgender people can ask which gender of the person they want to search)
  • The search should be conducted in private, out of sight of members of the opposite sex (except for a responsible adult whose presence has been requested by a child or vulnerable adult).
  • When exposing intimate body parts such as breasts or genitals, a minimum number of people should be present and no members of the opposite sex, unless they are medical personnel
  • Searches of anyone under the age of 18 should take place in the presence of a responsible adult unless the child does not want them to be present
  • You shouldn’t have to remove all your clothes at once
  • You may be asked to raise your arms in the air, stand with your legs apart, open your mouth, or bend forward, but you should not be touched
  • You should be able to fix it as soon as possible.

What rights do you have if you are searched?

Citizen’s Advice Scotland has listed the rights you have when searched:

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  • Ask the officer to identify himself
  • The right to remain silent
  • An explanation for what illegal items they are looking for
  • An explanation of the reasonable grounds for suspicion you have for the search
  • Be searched in as private a place as possible
  • Have an officer of the same sex search you
  • Receive a receipt for the search

The search must be recorded in writing. You can obtain a copy of the search report from the police within six months of the search. You should not be asked for your name, address or date of birth to complete the record if you have previously opted out, but if you do not do so you will not be able to receive a copy of the search log.

Why are strip searches controversial?

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Strip searches are seen as an invasion of people’s privacy and physical autonomy. They automatically have a power dynamic that puts the person they are looking for in a position of vulnerability – and has often been described as demeaning and demeaning.

Strip searches are intended as a safety precaution so law enforcement officers can combat possible crime and protect the public. However, data is often not recorded and compiled in a uniform manner.

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Recently, the story of Child Q, a 15-year-old black schoolgirl who was accused by her teachers of smelling of cannabis and was strip-searched at her school in Hackney, London, caused outrage.

She was taken aside and strip searched in the absence of another adult while officers knew she was menstruating.

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A report released today (8 August 2022) further revealed that strip searches of children between the ages of 10 and 17 have increased.

Dame Rachel De Souza

In her report, Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza said: “Today (8 August 2022) I am releasing data from the Metropolitan Police which I have requested using my powers under the Children and Families Act 2014.

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“Half of all strip searches of children resulted in no further action, raising questions as to whether these intrusive and traumatizing searches were even necessary.

“Between 2018 and 2020, 650 children were strip searched – at a rate of nearly one a day in 2020.

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“In some cases, these were children as young as 10 years old – a quarter of the children searched were 15 years old or younger.”

Dame Rachel spoke to ITV’s Good Morning Britain about her concerns about dealing with the police. She said: “More worryingly, 25%, a quarter, of them did not have a suitable adult there. That means no parent, no caregiver, no social worker, they were taken, the children are stopped and searched, not arrested, either taken to the police or taken home, one in five we don’t even know where they were taken and are the subject of an intimate search .

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“That 25% without a suitable adult is really worrying. It’s a very traumatic experience and it has to stop.”

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