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The use of strip searches as part of stop and search requires urgent review

Being strip searched by police officers can be a humiliating and degrading experience for those subjected to it, yet many police forces do not have policies on when the practice can be used and many senior police officers are unclear about when it can be justified.

The use of stop and search as an effective policing tool has long been the topic of criticism and controversy. Figures for the year ending March 2015 suggest that there were 541,000 stops and searches conducted by police in England and Wales and that only around one in seven of those led to an arrest. The power is being disproportionately used on those from Black and Minority Ethnic groups who were twice as likely to be stopped and searched and those who were black who were four times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. What is not clear from the above data is how many of the searches conducted amounted to a strip search.

What is a strip search?

A search constitutes a strip search if a person is required to remove more than their outer clothing. This being an outer coat, jacket or gloves. For example, if an officer requires a person to remove their T-shirt this would amount to a strip search as would searches involving exposure of intimate body parts.

A strip search must be conducted by a member of the same sex, in an area that the person searched cannot be seen by anyone who does not need to be present or a member of the opposite sex. Strip searches can take place in a police van but only if they do not include the exposure of intimate body parts. Searches involving exposure of intimate parts of the body may be carried out only at a nearby police station or other nearby location which is out of public view. A person being searched shall not normally be required to remove all their clothes at the same time, so, for example, they should be allowed to remove clothing above the waist and redress before removing further clothing.

How are strip searches used by the police?

In 2013, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report, Stop and Search Powers: Are the police using them effectively and fairly? concluded that stop and search powers were rarely targeted at priority crimes in particular areas and that there was very little understanding in forces about how the powers should be used most effectively and fairly to cut crime. In addition, it found that of the records it examined in 2013, that 27 percent did not include sufficient grounds to justify the lawful use of the power.

As a result of the HMIC report the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, commissioned the HMIC to review the search powers involving the removal of more than a person’s outer clothing, including strip-searches, to identify whether these searches are lawful, necessary and appropriate.

Significant concerns

The resulting HMIC report highlighted significant concerns about the use of the power, reporting that only four forces out of 44 had a policy in place that dealt with the use of strip search as part of a stop and search. The other 40 forces were unable to provide any information about searches that had been conducted involving the removal of more than outer clothing. As such, the HMIC was unable to report on the number of strip searches carried out by police forces in England and Wales but commented that the responses to their survey would suggest that these searches are carried out in such numbers as to demand “rigorous oversight” and described levels of scrutiny and accountability to be “very weak.” The recommendations of the HMIC in respect of this power, as with traffic stops, was increased transparency through data recording and a revision of Code A to provide greater clarity both in relation to grounds and procedure.

Whilst the recommendations by the HMIC are welcomed they do not go far enough. Many of those who have been subjected to a strip search have described the process as both humiliating and degrading. The fact that a person can be subjected to a strip search when they are not even under arrest is in any event highly concerning. Factor into this the lack of scrutiny applied to this power and inevitably you will be left with a situation where the public are at risk of an abuse of power.

In May 2016, the HMIC published its inspection report of the British Transport Police following its recommendations in 2013. The findings are concerning. The report found that, although the British Transport Police has collated the occasions on which more than outer coat, jacket or gloves are removed and whether that involved the exposure of intimate body parts, the stop and search record itself did not have a specific field in which this information could be recorded. This left scope for inaccurate information to be recorded on the system.

More worryingly however, is that the review highlighted that some officers interviewed did not display a good knowledge of the circumstances under which more than outer coat, jacket or gloves can be removed and that there was confusion as to the locations in which more intrusive searches should be carried out.

It also highlighted that some supervisors interviewed, including sergeants and inspectors, were unaware of the process to be undergone in respect of conducting and recording strip searches.

Clearly the recommendation and implementation of a revised Code of Practice is simply not enough. More needs to be done to ensure that officers are fully aware of when and how they can conduct strip searches, with all the necessary safeguards in place. This is essential in order to protect the public from potentially unlawful, embarrassing and degrading strip searches. Many organisations have rightly advocated the pressing need for the Home Office to review strip search powers and bring about a substantive policy change in this area.

Strip search powers are extremely intrusive and it would be preferable for the practice to be banned in circumstances of a stop and search. There should be no power for an officer to request that a person remove clothing other than following an arrest and then only if it’s absolutely necessary to do so in cases where there is reliable intelligence to suggest that an item has been concealed which could be used to cause harm to the individual or officers.

The fact that so few stop and searches end in arrest suggests that the practice is being used too readily and is not effective in preventing or solving crime. The use of this power on those who are so often innocent of any crime can further damage the relationship between communities and the police and, particularly in the case of strip searches, can be traumatic for the individual involved.

Members of the Civil Liberties Team at Hodge Jones & Allen have seen little to reassure us that the previous review into the use of strip searches has brought about any real change or scrutiny of this practice. It seems rather to have merely become another paper-based tick box exercise for data collection which, as can be seen by the inspection report of the British Transport Police, is unreliable and open to manipulation. An overhaul of the actual practice of strip search powers is urgently needed.