Police strip-search: African-Caribbean people most likely target, study shows
The report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary for England and Wales (HMIC) found that children, vulnerable people and the mentally ill are being locked in cells and sometimes unnecessarily criminalized because police custody is being used as a substitute for social and health care.
The report, titled, “The welfare of vulnerable people in police custody,” commissioned in 2014 by Home Secretary Theresa May, found police forces “did not have sufficient data and other information to demonstrate to the communities they service that all people who come into contact with the police are treated fairly and safely.”
“While 3 percent of the population was from African-Caribbean groups in the forces we inspected, people from these backgrounds represented 9 percent of the custody throughput, and 17 percent of those strip-searched.”
Research conducted by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) found that people detained held “a strong view that strip searches were undignified and degrading” and that some, including children, had agreed to remove their clothes so that police officers would not forcibly remove them.
In January 2014, a report revealed that people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds accounted for more than half of those strip-searched by the Metropolitan Police between 2010 and 2013. Of the 94,448 people who were searched by the Met following arrest, 52.5 percent were from African-Caribbean, Asian and other minority groups.
By law, strip searches can only be used on people under arrest, in cells at police stations or detention centers. They cannot be used as routine and must be approved by an inspector.
The latest report adds to mounting concerns that vulnerable people are being detained often unnecessarily.
In February, appeal judges ruled that although stripping a distressed and vulnerable 14-year-old girl of her clothes when she arrived at a police station may not be the best way to cope with the risk of suicide, Merseyside police officers did not breach the teenager’s right to privacy.
The ruling follows claims that more forces are strip-searching children, not to look for hidden evidence like drugs, but to ensure they do not attempt to self-harm or hang themselves while in police custody.
The report also examined the demographic of those put in police cells. Among them was a 90-year-old dementia patient who was arrested after being violent toward staff, as well as a girl who had fought with her sister over a TV remote control.
HM Inspector of Constabulary Dru Sharpling said although police generally responded to the challenge of protecting vulnerable people, “it is clear police custody provision has to improve to ensure that vulnerable people are safeguarded effectively and, where appropriate, diverted from the criminal justice system.”
“Each public service must fully discharge its responsibilities to ensure that police custody does not become the default option for vulnerable people in need of care.”
May said the report “makes clear how much more remains to be done to ensure that those who end up in police cells, especially those in custody for their own safety, receive proper treatment and respect.”
“I have always been clear that the use of force must be lawful, proportionate and necessary in all the circumstances, that people experiencing a mental health crisis should receive health-based care and support rather than being held in a police cell, and that children charged with an offense should be transferred to suitable local authority accommodation instead of being detained overnight.”