THE Police Ombudsman’s office is considering opening an investigation into the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI’s) strip searching of under-18s.
Rights campaigners and senior political representatives called on the PSNI to stop strip searching children and young people as a result of findings published by The Detail, which revealed there were 34 instances of under-18s being subjected to this power last year.
While the Police Ombudsman's office confirmed it received no complaints relating to the strip searching of under-18s in 2021, a spokesperson said: "The issues highlighted by the reporting in The Detail are very concerning.
"The operational decision to strip search a person is a significant use of force which potentially engages the subjected person’s human rights. To use this form of force on a child requires significant justification."
Strip searches involve the removal of clothing and can include the exposure of intimate body parts. However, they differ from intimate searches which involve the physical examination of a person’s body orifices other than the mouth.
The PSNI has maintained that none of the 34 strip searches of under-18s in 2021 involved intimate searches.
Most of the young people who were strip searched in 2021 by the PSNI were aged from 15 to 17. However, two children aged from 12 to 14 were also strip searched by officers here.
Police found no drugs, weapons or anything else harmful as a result of almost all (31/34) of the strip searches officers carried out on under-18s last year. They found drugs due to strip searches in three such instances.
In 14 of the 34 cases of under-18s being strip searched in 2021, the PSNI was unable to provide any justification for why these strip searches were conducted – even though officers are obligated to record this.
The Police Ombudsman's office confirmed it was concerned by this and said it's "currently considering the available information to determine if the matters raised require investigation".
In response to the prospect of such an investigation, the PSNI told The Detail this is “a matter for the Police Ombudsman”.
Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland programme director, Patrick Corrigan, told The Detail: “The use of strip searches against children constitutes a serious violation of their dignity and human rights. We call on the PSNI to end this shocking practice immediately.”
The Children’s Law Centre’s policy officer, Claire Kemp, told The Detail the figures are “deeply shocking and concerning”, and that the PSNI should stop strip searching under-18s immediately as the practice represents a “fundamental breach of children’s rights”.
Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), Koulla Yiasouma, said: “Police powers such as stop and search and strip searching should only be used sparingly and as a measure of last resort.
“The statistics highlighted by The Detail show that this is not the case and NICCY will continue to raise this with all relevant policing bodies in our engagement and monitoring processes.”
Queen’s University Belfast’s senior criminology lecturer, Dr John Topping, said strip searching under-18s is “hard to justify on any grounds as an effective power in dealing with children except in the most necessary of circumstances”.
In addition, Alliance’s John Blair said the “statistics are deeply distressing and are clearly unjustifiable” – while Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly expressed similar concern and said he “will be raising these reports with the Chief Constable”.