THE Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) should stop the practice of strip searching children, according to Amnesty International and senior political representatives.
It was recently revealed by The Detail that, in 2021, there were 34 instances in which under-18s were strip searched by the PSNI and that two of the cases involved young people aged between 12 and 14.
No drugs, weapons or anything else harmful were found as a result of 91% (31/34) of the strip searches.
In addition, in 14 of the 34 cases, the PSNI was unable to provide any justification for why the strip searches were conducted – even though officers are obliged to record this information.
The Detail’s findings resulted in calls for the PSNI to stop strip searching under-18s.
Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland programme director, told The Detail: “The use of strip searches against children constitutes a serious violation of their dignity and human rights.
“Further, it shows serious disregard for the PSNI’s commitment to human rights and the UK’s obligations under international human rights law to uphold the rights of the child. We call on the PSNI to end this shocking practice immediately.”
Alliance’s John Blair, who was a member of the last Policing Board, told The Detail: “These statistics are deeply distressing and are clearly unjustifiable, particularly given the proven low rate of outcomes from the practice.
“It should be a priority for the new term of the Policing Board to seek to end it.”
Sinn Féin’s policing spokesperson, Gerry Kelly, told The Detail: “Sinn Féin are very concerned about these reports of strip searching procedures on children under-18 by the PSNI.
“The practice of strip searching is entirely out-of-step with any semblance of human rights standards and should be ended. I will be raising these reports with the Chief Constable.”
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.
The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), Koulla Yiasouma, told The Detail: “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.”
Commissioner Yiasouma said the use of these powers in this way “results in many young people feeling they have been discriminated against and in turn can lead to a drop in confidence in the police”.
She also said: “Young people must be able to see the PSNI as a service that is there to protect them.
“Regrettably, the use of these powers in this way undermines this and leaves some young people feeling they are being unfairly and not equally treated.”
These calls for the PSNI to change its approach follow Queen’s University Belfast’s senior criminology lecturer, Dr John Topping, and the Children’s Law Centre’s policy officer, Claire Kemp, also criticising the police’s strip searching of under-18s.
Dr 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”.
Ms Kemp said 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”.
PSNI Chief Superintendent Sam Donaldson said: “Unfortunately there are occasions when it is necessary and proportionate for police officers to conduct strip searches of under-18s”, but that they are only conducted “when authorised by a custody sergeant and are carried out in a place of privacy by a suitably qualified/trained officer of the same sex, giving appropriate respect to preferred gender identity, as the individual being searched”.
He also said the PSNI’s ‘Policing Powers Development Group’ will look at the data uncovered by The Detail and that “any trends or issues arising will be addressed”.
The senior police officer added: “We continually seek to learn and improve the processes we employ to help keep our communities safe and will always take on board any learning from the experience of others.”