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FOI request reveals number of children strip-searched by South Yorkshire Police

The number of people of colour strip searched by South Yorkshire Police is disproportionate, leading to additional questions following the Child Q scandal. 

South Yorkshire Police headquarters, Sheffield
Robin Stott

Last month, a safeguarding report made national headlines as details of a child (Child Q) being strip-searched at school by police came forward. On the day of the incident, Child Q was taken out of an exam and strip-searched by two female police officers while teachers waited outside. Officers were looking for cannabis. While the search happened, no other adults were present, Child Q’s parents were not informed, and no drugs were found.

Since Child Q’s experiences have come to light, two London boroughs have changed the rules so that police must first get permission from police inspectors before strip-searching a child.

In the safeguarding report, Child Q’s mother said:

This makes me sick - the fact that my child had to take her sanitary towel off and put the same dirty towel back on because they would not allow her to use the restroom to clean herself. I was also wondering if the officers body cameras were on while my child was stripped of her clothes, are they re-watching it?

Child Q’s case comes in the context of Black children routinely being let down by schools, police, and the government. It also adds to the growing case for getting police out of schools. Manchester-based community campaign group No More Police in Schools explain:

There is mounting evidence to suggest that police in schools make many students feel less safe, particularly those from already over-policed communities.

This group is supported by the Northern Police Monitoring Project who are a grassroots organisation that work with people who are affected by police violence and harassment. These organisations reflect the growing concern that police target communities of colour, and as Child Q’s experiences show, that police are causing great harm to young children of colour.

South Yorkshire Police van
Mikey

What about South Yorkshire?

A freedom of Information (FOI) request sent to South Yorkshire Police in March 2022 asked for information about strip-searches carried out in the region. Between May 2017 and December 2021 a total of 508 people were strip searched by South Yorkshire Police. The FOI response makes it clear that a strip and search is when officers search “more than jeans, outer garments and gloves - exposes intimate parts.” Of these 508 people, 51 were female, and 457 were male.

The data is then broken down into age: 24 people between the ages of 13-17 were strip searched in this time period – 4% of people from the total amount. The largest age group strip searched by South Yorkshire Police were aged 18-27.

Ethnicity is recorded via asking people how they identify. The data reads as follows:

Self-defined Ethnicity Total Type 3 Searches WHITE 304, BLACK 56, ASIAN 71, MIXED 11, OTHER 4, NOT STATED 62, TOTAL 508

Of these 508 people who were strip searched by South Yorkshire police, 11% were Black, while 14% were Asian. If the other categories are to be taken as ‘not white’ then the number of people of colour strip searched by South Yorkshire police between March 2017 and December 2021 is 40%.

The last available census data is from 2011 and shows that in Yorkshire and the Humber, 7.3% of people are Asian, 1.5% of people are Black, and 85.8% are white. Evidently, the number of people of colour strip searched by South Yorkshire Police is disproportionately high.

What does this mean?

It’s also important to understand these statistics with the context of modern policing. As Child Q’s case shows, children being strip searched by the police (particularly in schools) is an extremely traumatising, humiliating, and degrading experience. Both the number of children and the number of people of colour being stripped and searched in South Yorkshire reflect a pattern across the rest of the country. This pattern shows that Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. The number of Asian people being stopped and searched has gone up from 8% to 13%.

South Yorkshire Police told Now Then that there had been an error in the data they sent out in the FOI, saying “The correct figure for the number of 'strip searches' carried out between 2017-2020 is 20. Four had wrongly been tagged on the list”, before confirming that all of these searches were on children aged 15 – 17.

They went on to say: “There are occasions when young people can be lawfully searched under PACE and the misuse of drug act. This is carried out in a measured, proportionate and considerate manner if it has to be done, with an appropriate adult representative present throughout if more than an outer search of clothing is taking place."

Child Q’s experiences show that Black children are not being protected, and are instead targeted. The picture this FOI response paints of strip searches carried out by South Yorkshire Police is one that means we must consider how effective these searches are, and the very real possibility that they do more harm than good. Police forces must be held to account. This can mean witnessing police harassment, paying attention to statistics about things like stop and search, and asking questions of police procedures and whether they really protect children and minorities.

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