Strip search is a inherently violent police power that has rightfully received recent criticism in the media and from our communities due to distressing accounts of children being strip searched in an unlawful, racially discriminatory and oppressive manner, like the case of Child Q.
The law empowers the police to strip search people in certain circumstances, where the police considers it “necessary” to do so.
Strip search powers are being used disproportionately by the police on Black adults and children. This document was created to help inform you of your rights and the laws the police should follow when carrying out strip searches. It also explains what you can do if you have been strip searched or if you witness one. The law on strip searching is generally quite disturbingly broad and hard to follow, but within this document we have aimed to make it easier for you to know the protections in place that you should know about.
However, even when the police follow the correct law and procedure, strip searches are still a form of state violence used against racialised communities and fundamentally traumatic for those subjected to them. Information on where you may look for community support and solidarity is also provided below.
What is a strip search?
The law states that a strip search is a search where you take off more than your outer clothing. Outer clothing is your jackets, shoes and socks. A search that just requires you to remove outer coat, jacket or gloves, is not a strip search. Under section 60 ( please see below) they can require you to remove an item that hides your identity like a balaclava or skii mask.
Strip searches can be embarrassing, humiliating and demeaning experiences.
A Strip Search can in some cases involve the exposure of your private parts ( Breast ( female) , Penis, Vagina and Anus).
Strip searches that expose your intimate body parts can only be carried out if you are at a private place like a police station or in a private area- a police van is not a private area.
When does the law allow the police to strip search a person?
Strip searches can be done in two situations.
Firstly, they can form part of a stop and search.
The police can only carry out a stop and search if they have a ‘reasonable and genuine suspicion’ that they will find something illegal on you, or something that could be used to commit a crime. This means that not only must the officer have a genuine belief themselves that they will find something illegal on you, but the average person must think their belief is reasonable.
The police should tell you their name and police station, what they are searching for, give specific reasons as to why they suspect you in particular and inform you of your rights to request a record of the search.
If there is a section 60 order in place, which allows the police to search you without a reasonable suspicion, then they must say this order is in place before carrying out the search. A plain-clothed officer must show you their warrant card before trying to search you.
Secondly, strip searches can be carried out if you are in police custody at a police station. Strip searches in the police station must be authorised by the custody officer.
A strip search is not the automatic next step to a standard search where nothing is found.
Strip searches can only be conducted where, for example, the police have a reasonable and genuine suspicion that they will find hidden items on you that are illegal, or hidden items which you will use to harm yourself or any other person, and they consider it necessary to strip search you to find out.
The police must ensure they ask you to hand over anything you have on you first before strip searching you. The police should consider if alternative options, other than strip searching you, are available. They must only remove the extent of clothing necessary to address their suspicion.
The police cannot carry out a strip search just because you have a past criminal record or you match a vague description (including racial) of the person they are looking for.
The strip search can not be done through racial profiling. This is when an officer relies on stereotypes based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, rather than objective evidence or individual behaviour, to subject people to stops, strip searches, detailed searches, identity checks and investigations, or for deciding that an individual is taking part in criminal activity. Racial profiling results in discriminatory decision-making and it is against the law.
Unfortunately, we know all too well that the police often conduct searches in a discriminatory way. You are able to challenge this by asking for specific reasons for why YOU are being searched and making a record of the reasons the police give you. See below on resisting an unlawful search.
Where can a strip search take place?
Strip searches that expose your private parts must be carried out in a private, designated area (such as a police station or police tent) and must not be in public view of anyone who does not need to be there. A police vehicle is generally not a suitable area, especially not for strip searches that expose your private parts.
If the strip search does not exposure your private parts (e.g. the removal of your t-shirt ) it can be carried out in a Police van by an officer of the same sex. It still must be out of public view. These types of searches are also known as More Through Searches.
Will I be searched by someone of the same gender as me?
The law says that strip searches must be carried out by someone of the same “sex” as you. There should not be anyone of the opposite sex present unless you have specifically requested that an appropriate adult of the opposite sex be present or you request that you want a person from the opposite sex there.
If you are gender non-conforming, non-binary or transgender, you can request to be searched by an officer of the same gender as you. If you have a Gender Recognition Certificate, the police must respect the gender that is stated on that certificate.
Unfortunately, the police do have powers to “assess” what gender they think you are if they don’t believe you, or you don’t tell them which gender you wish to be treated as. This means that there can be a risk of the police misgendering you. However, if you tell the police which gender you want to be treated as, they must write your request down. If the police misgender you, ask for their written record of the search.
What can happen during a strip search?
Strip searches should be carried out with dignity and sensitivity, and all reasonable efforts should be taken to minimise your embarrassment. The strip search should be done in a way that allows you to have as much clothing on as possible at any one time. It should be done in stages, so at no point should you ever be completely naked. If your top half is being searched then the bottom half of your clothing should remain on. You should be able to put any clothes straight back on once the area has been searched.
The strip search should end as quickly as possible. You should be allowed to put all your clothing back on as soon as the search is complete.
If the strip search involves the exposure of your private parts, there must be two people present other than the person being strip searched.
If the police believe it is necessaryto assist them with the strip search, they may require the person being strip searched to hold their arms in the air or to stand with their legs apart and bend forward so a visual examination may be made of the genital and anal areas.
There should not be direct physical contact with your body parts during the strip search. Police should only touch or move pieces of your clothing (within reason to assist with the search). If police find any item, they must request that you had it over without contact. If you refuse, they may use reasonable force to seize it. If the item is in a body orifice other than your mouth, and you refuse to hand it over, the police’s removal of the item from your orifice would constitute an intimate search and they need your consent to carry out an intimate search.
What is an intimate search?
Intimate searches are examinations of a person’s body orifices, other than the mouth (e.g. the anus or vagina). They are very intrusive and a risk to health. They can only take place if an officer of Inspector rank or above have reason to believe you have concealed something in your orifice that you might use to cause physical injury, or a Class A drug you intend to supply, and an intimate search is the only way to remove the item.
Where the police believe you have concealed something in your orifice that you may use to cause physical injury, the intimate search can only take place in a police station or medical premises. It must be carried out by medical professionals unless an inspectordecides it is not practicable to do so, in which case an officer is allowed to conduct the intimate search where necessary as a last resort.
Where the police believe you have concealed a Class A drug in your orifice, the intimate search must be carried out by a medical professional in medical premises. It can only be carried out with your written consent, but you must be warned that refusing without good cause may harm your case if it comes to trial.
Can the police remove religious clothing?
If the police want to remove an item of religious clothing, such as a hijab, a tam or a turban, that must happen in a private place. You can also ask that this is only done in the presence of a police officer of the same “sex” as you.
What if I have a disability?
The police have a duty not to discriminate or treat you badly because of your disability. Tell the police if there is anything that you would be uncomfortable with or unable to do during a search.
If you have a visual, hearing or speech impairment, inform the police. They should make sure you understand the information they give you about the search and that you are able to communicate with them.
What if I don’t speak English?
The police should arrange for you to have an interpreter.
What if I am not feeling well or am on my period?
If you are feeling unwell or are menstruating, inform the police. Remember that you should have someone the same “sex” as you conducting the search.
The guidance on police powers (The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 or “PACE”) does not have a specific guidance on periods but you should raise this with the officers searching you so they are aware.
There is a strong argument that strip searching you whilst on your period would form degrading treatment that would breach your human rights as it is a sensitive time when you are vulnerable. If the police insist on carrying out a search they should provide reasons for this.
What if I need medical attention?
If you need medical attention, inform the police. They should find medical attention for you. If you think you need to see a doctor urgently, ask the police to find you a doctor or to call an ambulance.
What if I am a vulnerable person?
If you are a person who is vulnerable or has a mental disorder or is menatlly vulnerable , an Appropriate Adult mustbe with you when you are being strip searched.
An Appropriate Adult can be a relative, guardian or another person responsible for your care or custody. Alternatively they can be someone experienced in working with people with mental ill-health or vulnerability. They cannot be a police officer or employed by the police. They should be the same “sex” as you, unless you specifically request an Appropriate Adult of the opposite sex.
You do not have to provide anything to prove your vulnerability or mental disorder to the police. If the police have any suspicion or are told that you are mentally disordered or mentally vulnerable then you must be treated like you are.
The police should be sensitive to the communication needs of a vulnerable person.
What if I’m under 18?
If you are under 18 years old, you are considered a child or young person, and you do not have to provide anything to prove to the police that you are a child. If the police are unsure if you are a child, or are told that you are a child, then they must treat you as one.
You must be strip searched in the presence of an ‘Appropriate Adult.’ An Appropriate Adult might be your parent or guardian, but could also be a social worker, carer, youth worker or a volunteer as long as they are over the age of 18. They cannot be a police officer or someone employed by the police.
The Appropriate Adult should be the same “sex” as you, unless you specifically request an Appropriate Adult of the opposite sex. If they are present for the strip search, then there should be only one other person present.
The police should be sensitive to your communication needs as a child. They must keep your best interests in mind.
If you are under 14, the Appropriate Adult must be present for a strip search that is an intimate search (of orifices other than the mouth), and they must consent to the strip search.
If you are aged 14-18, both your consent and the consent of your Appropriate Adult is first needed. If you are aged 14 – 18 the strip search can be carried out without an Appropriate Adult but only where you say that you don’t want them present, in front of the Appropriate Adult and the Appropriate Adult agrees. A record needs to be made of the young person’s decision and signed by the Appropriate Adult.
When can a strip search go ahead without an Appropriate Adult for a child / young person / vulnerable person?
The only exception to the need for an Appropriate Adult is in urgent cases, where the child/young person/vulnerable person is a risk of harm to themselves or others. This is a high threshold and rare scenario.
Even if the police believe a case is so urgent that they should go ahead without an Appropriate Adult present, the courts have said they must try to secure an Appropriate Adult first and explore ways which will allow them to wait for an Appropriate Adult to arrive while keeping the child safe.
Is race a factor in me being strip searched?
It should not be. However, we know that the rights of Black children are not as protected as they should be. We know that racism is a key reason why this happens.
A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner confirmed that 58% of boys who were strip searched in London by the Met police during 2018 – 2020 were Black. In 2018 this figure was as high as 75%.
A study has found that of all boys strip searched without an Appropriate Adult present, 57% were Black, and, in 2018, Black boys represented two thirds of strip searches conducted without an Appropriate Adult
Statistics from the same study show 5 per cent of strip search carried out on all children were on girls, there was no racial breakdown but we are positive that the data set will show a disparity in how Black girls are strip searched in line with Child Q’s experience and a disparity in the amount of Black girls subject to being strip searched.
Can the police use force to strip search me?
You can be detained for the purposes of a search and strip search, and reasonable force can be used by the police to carry it out. However, the police should try to get you to cooperate first.
Can I refuse or resist a strip search?
If the police believe they have lawful grounds for a strip search, they are unlikely to let you refuse it.
If you refuse a lawful strip search, officers can use reasonable force to carry it out. They may also have grounds to arrest you.
You have the right to resist an unlawful strip search. If you resist a strip search that turns out to be unlawful, force may still be used against you by the police at the time of the strip search and you may be arrested for resisting. This is often a traumatic experience and it can sometimes be difficult to prove later in court that the search was unlawful. However you may later have an argument that the search was unlawful, therefore the arrest was unlawful, that you have not committed an offence as a result and that you have been assaulted. Suggestions on where to seek legal advice are in the final section of this document.
What can I do during a strip search?
Take a note of the officer’s unique badge number (this is how you can identify the officer in the future). The number is placed on their shoulder pads. [Add photo]
You can record the police searching you.
You can record a voice note of the interaction.
If you feel able and safe to do so as we understand interactions with the police can be very harmful and intimidating you can let the police know they have not followed the law and correct them during your search.
It is also okay to not say anything at all and just keep a mental note of what has happened and what was done wrong by the police to later tell to your support system or a lawyer if you wish to make an action against the police claim.
What can I do if I see someone else being strip searched?
If you see a strip search taking place in a public place (which includes an alleyway), you may wish to film the incident on your phone, especially if you know the person being strip searched. The footage might be useful to them in the future.
Try to get permission from the person being strip searched first and you should always take care to respect the person’s dignity. Try to focus the recording on the police and what they are doing in order to respect that person’s privacy. You should not share the video with anyone else but the person, and delete it if the person wants you to.
If you know the person being strip searched, and you know that they are a child / vulnerable / have any other needs, you can try to communicate that to the police.
What can you do after a strip search?
You can ask for a note of the search from the officer that searched you.
You can request the details of your search from police within three months for a general stop and search. For a section 60 stop and search you can request a slip from the police for up to a year.(But please note that you will not be provided with a search record on personal request from the police, if the search follows an arrest)
As soon as a strip search has happened, when you feel able to, try to write a detailed account of the following:
Where it took place.
What time it happened.
What was said to you by the officers before the search.
The reasons given for a strip search.
Whether they gave you an opportunity to hand items over voluntarily.
How you felt during the strip search.
The race and gender of the officers that searched you.
If they asked your age and if they asked about any mental health vulnerabilities you have.
Whether your wishes were respected.
Whether they followed any procedures for young people or the mentally vulnerable.
If you email yourself your account of the strip search, either handwritten or typed, that will create an electronic timestamp proving that you made it when your memory was fresh.
Where to get help?
We understand that Strip Search is a form of state violence that can impact your wellbeing. It can cause feelings of stress and anxiety that fall under a specific type of trauma called racial trauma.
Robyn Maynard in ‘Policing Black Lives’ notes that “The ongoing control of Black people practised by the police — has a huge impact on the psychological well-being of Black communities. It must be seen, and addressed, as a form of state violence.” Even profiling and [strip searches] that do not result in arrest is itself harmful: the American Psychological Association has found that it can cause post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress-related disorders.”
Researchers in the UK at the SynergiCollaborativeCentrehave also found compelling evidence that shows that racism is a form of stressor, both in its more overt forms and as micro-aggressions, where there is no major incident but there is an awareness of being treated and responded to in a less than fair way, feared, avoided or disadvantaged on the basis of race. These subtle influences can result in pessimism, and difficulties adjusting and recovering from trauma, and there is a growing and convincing body of evidence that psychosis and depression, substance misuse and anger are more likely in those exposed to racism. More explicit verbally hurtful comments about appearance or physical attacks, due to hostility towards a specific race, also cause emotional distress, and lead to mental illnesses – in part because of the direct threat to identity and status, but also because physical and verbal violence lead to injury and post-traumatic stress.’
The organisation Y-Stop have created an app that you can keep on your phone, which lets you record a stop and search and make a complaint.
For any support around racial trauma please contact the following organisations:
https://www.blackmindsmatteruk.com/enquiry-about-therapy– Free Black therapist online
https://racereflections.co.uk/contact-2/ (Paid services)
Racial Trauma Therapist – https://mabadilikotherapy.com (Paid services)
Racial Trauma Counsellor- https://www.lylasplace.cc (Paid services)
BLAM UK Zuri Therapy workshops – Free Racial Wellness sessions – https://blamuk.org/zuri-therapy-racial-wellness/
For community support please contact the following Organisations:
The Monitoring Group
Kids of Colour
How to hold the police to account:
An unlawful strip search will constitute an assault. It may also violate the right to private life under the European Convention on Human Rights and, depending on its level of severity, the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment under the ECHR.
A complaint can be made to the police, which will be dealt with internally by the police itself. You can do this by going to the police station and asking to see the on-call duty officer; dialling 101, or on the Met Police website.
If you think you may have a legal case against the police we suggest you contact the following law firms first to assist you with your complaint:
- Just 4 Kids Law 0203 174 2279
- Saunders Law 020 7632 4300
- MTC Solicitors 020 7624 4300
- Hodge Jones Allen 0808 274 5606
- Bindmans 020 7833 4433
- Birnberg Pierce and Partners 020 7911 0166
- Bhatt Murphy 020 7729 1115
Finally, there is a campaign to end strip search of children, which you can check out here: https://www.endstripsearch.co.uk/
This document was drafted by a Lawyers from Black Protest Legal Support UK
18 August 2022