THE PSNI “appeared to ignore” their own rules on the strip searching of children, a Policing Board report has found.
The report looked at 38 strip searches of children - 27 in 2022 and 11 which have taken place since a new PSNI policy was launched in January.
In the 2022 cases, which involved the strip searches of children aged between 14 and 17, the report found an appropriate adult - normally a parent, guardian, or social worker - was present in only six cases.
The report questioned why officers did not properly record the reason for the searches.
It also found that, in the 2022 cases, prohibited items were only discovered on two occasions.
The report stated that in most of the cases “the PSNI appeared to ignore the rules and no-one was present to support the young person during this very invasive and humiliating use of power by officers”.
The Policing Board review, carried out by its human rights adviser John Wadham, was launched following a series of articles by The Detail highlighting issues with the strip searching of children.
Mr Wadham criticised the PSNI’s record keeping and said that “both the justification for the strip search and any justification for the failure to ensure that an appropriate adult was present were inadequately recorded”.
He added: “The lack of detail, in most cases, raises questions about whether a proper assessment occurred.”
Mr Wadham told a public meeting yesterday that after reviewing custody records he “wasn't convinced that the intelligence background necessarily justified the strip search”.
The report also highlighted potential religious discrimination.
Of the 38 children searched between 2022 and this year, 12 were Catholic, four Protestant, nine had no particular religious background, and 13 refused to provide details.
Two of the children were from a Traveller background.
The report found that the religious background figures could suggest “unconscious unlawful indirect discrimination”.
In late January, the PSNI introduced new guidelines around strip searches, including the need for detailed notes explaining the rationale behind each search.
However, the report found that the searches were “still problematic”.
Of the 11 searches this year, an appropriate adult was present in only five cases, and a prohibited item was only found once.
The report made a series of recommendations, including changing legislation to ensure fewer children are searched, better record keeping, and ensuring that the new policy is subject to a child’s rights impact assessment.
Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd told yesterday’s meeting that the PSNI accepted the recommendations.
“Clearly in the report there is feedback and lessons to be learned,” he said.
“I have been talking personally to supervisors in custody, about this and things we need to do differently and better.”
He said the PSNI arrested more than 26,000 people last year, including 12,079 children, and a strip search only happened in 2% of cases.
“The fact that we only use this power in 2% of the children and young persons arrested illustrates that we use it very rarely, very sparingly, because we understand the impacts of it,” he said.
However, Claire Kemp, from the Children’s Law Centre, told The Detail that the report did not go “far enough” and called for an end to the strip searching of children.
“It’s really welcome that there's a spotlight on strip searching of children, and that (the PSNI) are trying to improve record keeping, that they're trying to improve where appropriate adults need to be present,” she said.
“But ultimately, in terms of a child's rights impact assessment, which is also one of the recommendations, the (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child have very explicitly said that strip searching of children should be prohibited.
“So really, it doesn't go far enough for us in the Children’s Law Centre and I think the next discussion needs to be about what alternatives are there to make sure that no child is ever stripped searched, because it is really invasive, humiliating.”
Lee Kane, from Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC), said children who have been strip searched need additional support.
“Strip searching is a very invasive process, it's a humiliating process for a lot of young people,” he said.
“So we need to make sure that the PSNI have that trauma-informed practice and that we have adequate support in place for the people who do experience (strip searches).”