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Strip-searched in Derbyshire

Police officers across England are strip-searching people for no good reason. 

One day in March last year ten boys at a village school in Derbyshire were taken out of class and strip-searched by police officers without their parents' knowledge. Police checked inside the boys' underpants while a senior teacher playing 'appropriate adult' looked on. Two boys, aged 15 and 16, were arrested.

"We didn’t go as far as we can do in a strip search," Inspector Paul Cannon of Derbyshire police told BBC Radio Derby. "The power to strip search gives us the right to remove all outer clothes and ask the person being searched to bend over to show any crevices. We didn’t feel that was necessary in this case."

The head-teacher Wendy Sharp told the Daily Mail that John Port School had a 'zero tolerance' approach to drugs. "The police assured us three times that they were acting within the law," she said.

This past July the case of a vulnerable 22-year-old woman forcibly stripped naked by four male police officers and one female officer in Chelsea also made the national news.

Beneath the national media radar, in police custody facilities across England, people are being strip-searched for no good reason — as revealed by a series of joint reports by the Inspectorates of Prisons and Constabulary.

The latest, published last week and noted by local reporters only, concerns three police lock-ups in Derbyshire.

Inspectors paid a surprise visit to 24-hour custody suites in Derby, Chesterfield and Buxton in May. They found that people were being strip-searched without justification. At Derby and Chesterfield CCTV cameras recorded strip-searches and broadcast them on monitors behind the custody desk.

The rules on strip-searching are clear. A police officer must have "reasonable suspicion" that someone is concealing contraband. The search must be done by officers of the same sex as the detainee. Nobody who does not need to be there should see it.

Last week Superintendent Sunita Gamblin, who heads Derbyshire police's Criminal Justice Department, told the Derby Telegraph: "In respect of the strip-search policy, our approach has always been based on minimising the risk to the detainees as their safety is our main priority."

That explanation failed to convince the inspectors, who said: "The force told us this was to respond to detainee risks though, when asked, staff were unable to provide a cogent explanation as to why this was a proportionate response in some individual cases."

The inspectors noted that some people were forced to wear rip-proof safety clothing regardless of whether they were at immediate risk of harming themselves. One woman in Derby was stripped of her clothes and given a rip-proof top to wear and a blanket to cover her lower half.

The Derbyshire force also routinely breathalised detainees and used the drink-drive threshold to determine whether they were fit to be interviewed, locking people up for longer than was necessary. In Buxton and Derby people were kept in handcuffs in holding areas without justification, the inspectors said.

The joint inspection reports reveal that many police forces — including Derbyshire, Hampshire, Norfolk & Suffolk, Staffordshire and Northumbria — are failing properly to collate and analyse data on strip-searching and the use of force.

Consequently, nobody knows how many people are being strip-searched in total, nor the degree to which strip-searching may or may not be justified. Are numbers rising or falling? How do different police forces compare? Are those of us who are Black or from ethnic minorities being disproportionately strip-searched? Who knows?

The strip-search is a singular invasion of our privacy and bodily integrity, yet we are told surprisingly little about how the state is using it.

The automatic strip-searching of women in prison officially ended in April 2009, two years after the independent Corston Review described it as "humiliating, degrading and undignified and a dreadful invasion of privacy". Corston said that for women who had suffered past abuse, especially sexual abuse, strip-searching was, "an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation".

Two years ago routine strip-searching of children held in secure establishments officially ended. After that, in the 21 months to December 2012, almost 44,000 such strip-searches were recorded, as Carolyne Willow's FOI inquiries revealed (here on OurKingdom). Nearly half the children searched were from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Were those 44,960 searches justifiable? Willow reported that no explosives, guns or knives were found. Drugs were recovered on fifteen occasions. That's right. Fifteen.

About the author

Clare Sambrook, novelist and journalist, founded and co-edits Shine a Light, an investigative project that publishes first at openDemocracy. Clare is a co-founder of End Child Detention Now. Winner Paul Foot Award and Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism 2010. Orwell Prize nominee 2013 & 2015.


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