Photo credit: HeardInLondon

A strip search involves the police asking you to undress beyond removing outer clothing layers, like a coat, hat or gloves.

The use of this tactic has been widely criticised for its intimidatory and abusive nature, and the recent case of Child Q, a Black girl who was subjected to a degrading search by police officers on school grounds, has highlighted how often police ignore safeguards and abuse their powers. The 4FrontProject have launched a national campaign to end the use of strip search on children, and Northern Police Monitoring Project have called for the removal of GMP officers from Manchester schools.

Strip search is supposed to happen only under strict conditions, but the numbers of searches are rising, especially in London where it seems like it is becoming routine practice. In 2019, the BBC reported that around 16% of people held in custody in London had been subjected to a strip search, and this has increased during the pandemic.

Strip search is now regularly used by the Metropolitan Police – recently released FOI data shows the force has conducted 172,093 strip searches in the past 5 years. Of these, 9,088 strips searches were conducted on children, including 2,360 on children under 16. And disproportionality rates are high – in London, 33.5% of strip searches carried out in the last five years were conducted on Black people, when only 11.7% of Londoners are Black.

What constitutes reasonable grounds for a search?

As with most forms of stop and search, the police are not supposed to search you unless they have “reasonable grounds” to suspect that they will find drugs, weapons or other illegal items about your person. They should be able to tell you what items they are searching for, and give specific reasons that they suspect you in particular.

In theory, the police also cannot legally target you simply because you have a previous criminal record, or match a vague person description such as “age 15 – 20, mixed race”. However, police racism and prejudice is often reflected in the grounds for a search – legally, “smelling of cannabis” or suspecting someone has taken illegal drugs does not constitute legal grounds to search someone, although this is often the justification given for a search.

There are several types of search the police are allowed to conduct when they can ask you to remove items of clothing, and they’re governed by slightly different rules.

Removing clothing during a Stop and Search

In a stop and search conducted on the street, police are allowed to ask you to remove some items of outer clothing as part of a routine search (e.g. coat, gloves, hat), and this is not considered a strip search. They are also allowed to ask you to remove face coverings or items which might be used to “conceal your identity” (for instance, a face mask or balaclava), but they’re not allowed to ask you to remove any cultural or religious items (e.g. a turban or hijab) in public.

During a search like this, police are allowed to touch items of your clothing, such as the inside pockets of a jacket or to feel around the inside of collars, socks, and shoes. “Non intimate” searches like this can be conducted by a police officer of any gender, but you have the right to ask to be searched by an officer of the same gender as you. The police are supposed to comply with this if it is “reasonable practicable”.

Removing clothing in a “more thorough search”

If police wish to conduct a “more thorough search” and ask you undress further, they need to take you to a private location out of public sight. This can be the back of a police van, an empty room, or they may taken you to a police station. An empty street is still considered a public place.

During a “more thorough search”, police have the power to ask you to remove additional clothing items such as a jumper or t-shirt, and can ask you to remove religious or cultural items like a headscarf. If this happens, you are entitled to:

  • have an officer of the same gender as you carry out the search, out of sight of any people of a different gender. The only exception to this is if you have specifically requested someone of a different gender is present while you are searched (e.g. an appropriate adult – see below).
  • Trans and non-binary people are often denied an officer of the same gender when being searched, and you can find specific advice for trans and non-binary people around stop and search on the Green and Black Cross website.
  • During this type of search, you should not be expected to expose any intimate body parts.

Strip searches and exposing intimate parts of the body

The police can require you to undress and expose intimate parts of the body during a strip search. If you try to refuse a strip search, officers are authorised to use force where necessary to carry out the search, but this use of force needs to be authorised by a senior officer.

This is a highly controversial power, and is supposedly governed by a strict set of rules. However, there are regular reports of police abusing these powers, which have been labelled as state-sanctioned sexual assault.

Strip searches are supposed to be authorised only by a senior officer, and the police are not supposed to use them as a routine extension of their search powers if they don’t find the items they are searching for in a person’s outer clothing.

Police need to be able to provide concrete reasons that is is necessary and reasonable to conduct a strip search for it to be lawful, so if you are searched make sure you are told why you are being searched, what for, and why it is considered necessary.

Searches like this must be conducted at a nearby police station or other private location out of public view, not in a police vehicle. They are often conducted after an arrest, but you don’t need to have been arrested to be strip searched.

During a strip search, the legal requirements are that:

  • The officer carrying out the search must be of the same sex as the detainee. Again, trans and non-binary people are often denied this.
  • The search must be conducted in a location where the person cannot be seen by anyone who does not need to be present, or seen by anyone of a different gender (apart from an appropriate adult specifically requested by the person being searched – see below).
  • Unless there is a risk of serious harm to the person or to someone else, there must be a minimum of two persons present in addition to the person being searched. If an appropriate adult is required, one of those present must be the appropriate adult.
  • The person being searched should be allowed to keep as much of their clothing on as possible at all times – e.g., if they are required to take off clothing above the waist, they should be allowed to put it back on before taking off clothing below the waist.
  • Officers can ask someone to expose their intimate body parts as part of the search, but police are not allowed to make any physical contact with any body orifice (see ‘intimate searches’ below).
  • Officers are required to cover their body worn cameras or direct them away from a person when they are exposing intimate body parts, or switch to an audio-only recording.

Intimate searches

The most intrusive search powers the police have are for “intimate searches“. These are less commonly used, typically happen only after arrest, and need to be signed off by a senior officer of inspector level or above. They are only allowed to be used to search for class A drugs or items which might pose a serious threat if the person is left in possession of them (e.g. razor blades or other items which could be used for serious injury). Intimate searches are supposed to be carried out by someone of the same gender as the person being searched, and by a trained medical professional where possible.

What is an “appropriate adult”?

If a person is under 18 or classed as a “vulnerable adult”, they are supposed to have an “appropriate adult” with them if they are arrested or detained by police.

Appropriate adults are separate to and in addition to the right to legal advice, and are there to support the person, check that they understand what’s going on, and check that their rights are respected. An appropriate adult might be a parent, guardian, friend or social worker. In the case of strip searches if a person is underage or vulnerable, an appropriate adult is required to be present for the search unless the person being searched requests otherwise.

What can you do if the police search you unlawfully?

If you’ve been searched by police and believe that it may have been unlawful, you might have grounds for a police complaint or a civil claim against the police. You can read more about police search powers in the PACE code of conduct for police officers.

An unlawful search by police is legally categorised as assault – contact a solicitor from Netpol’s recommended solicitors list to seek legal advice, or reach out to us at info@netpol.org.