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Image credit: West Midlands Police.
As part of a standard stop and search, police officers can require those being searched to remove an outer coat, jacket, or gloves. Officers also have legal powers to require individuals to remove more clothing. This is commonly referred to as “strip searching”. Strip searches are recognised as a highly intrusive interaction with the police that can be embarrassing and demeaning for those searched.
There is heightened scrutiny on how police are using these powers because of recent high profile cases. Public debate has focuses on the negative, long-lasting and potentially traumatic affect searches could have if not conducted in line with the guidance.
What is strip searching?
Strip searching does not necessarily denote nudity or exposure of intimate body parts, though it can involve this. Strip searches can range from the removal of a T-shirt to the removal of all clothing.
The police can conduct these searches under their stop and search powers. However, unlike with a standard search, officers must take the individual to another location from where they have been stopped to conduct the search out of public view. For less exposing strip searches, this may happen in a police vehicle. The police can also strip search individuals who have been detained in custody following their arrest.
Police powers to conduct strip searches
If the police have reasonable grounds for suspecting someone has a dangerous or prohibited item1 on them, and it was not found during a standard search, officers can require individuals to remove clothing to search them. These are commonly referred to as “strip searches” and there are two distinct types:
• More Thorough Searches (MTS searches): where an officer requires the individual as part of a stop and search to remove more than an outer coat, jacket, or gloves (for example a T-shirt).
• Searches Involving Exposure of Intimate Parts of the Body (EIP searches): where an individual is required to remove all or most of their clothing.
The police also have powers that allow them to conduct ‘intimate searches’, where an officer conducts a physical examination of a person’s body orifices (other than the mouth). An intimate search may only be carried out on a person after they have been arrested. This type of search is not permitted under any circumstance under stop and search powers.
General principles for conducting strip searches
Statutory guidance on the procedures and principles police must follow to conduct strip searches legally are in paragraphs 3.6 and 3.7 of PACE Code A and paragraph 11 of PACE Code C, Annex A.
The College of Policing (the body responsible for professional standards in policing) also maintains Authorised Professional Practice (APP) on stop and search, which provides further guidance to police officers on conducting strip searches lawfully and effectively.
Officers should consider the sensitivity and vulnerability of the individual being strip searched and make every reasonable effort to secure their cooperation, minimise their embarrassment, and maintain their dignity.
There must be reasonable grounds to justify an MTS or EIP search. How thorough a search and the extent of clothing removed must not be excessive. In assessing what is proportionate officers must bear in mind the grounds for suspecting an individual and the item being searched for. For example, officers should consider how strong the reasonable grounds are; the approximate size of the object they are searching for; and how likely it is someone could conceal it. Strip searches must not be treated as routine extension of a less thorough search simply because nothing was found during an initial, standard search. Offices should take no longer than is reasonable to conduct the search. If a person must be moved to another location for a search, this must be within a reasonable travelling distance of the place where they were stopped. What is reasonable can depend on the mode of transport used for travelling to the alternative location.
Privacy and dignity
Any search involving the removal of more clothing than an outer coat, jacket, gloves, headwear, or shoes must not be conducted in view of the public or where anyone who does not need to be present can see. MTS searches not requiring someone to expose intimate body parts (eg requiring a person to take off a T-shirt) can take place for example in a police van, as long as it’s out of public view. However, EIP searches must be carried out at a nearby police station or other nearby location out of public view. EIP searches cannot take place in a police vehicle. An empty street, regardless of whether anyone else at the time is in view, is still a public place and therefore not permitted for any type of strip search. Searches must be conducted by an officer of the same sex as the person being searched and must not be made in the presence of anyone of the opposite sex unless the person being searched specifically requests it.
Officers should also complete the search as quickly as possible and those who are being searched should not be required to remove all their clothes at the same time. For example, a person should be allowed to remove clothing above the waist and redress before removing further clothing.
Oversight and governance
There must be a least two people present for a strip search in addition to the person being searched. APP guidance issued by the College of Policing states that officers should consult with a supervisor before conducting EIP searches. The officer should discuss the reasons why such a search is necessary and proportionate in the circumstances. This is intended to support good decision-making and provide suitable challenge to ensure appropriate use of police powers. However, consulting with a supervisor is not a legal requirement. A search may therefore still proceed without consultation, for example if an officer cannot get hold of a supervisor and still decides the search is necessary. If this is the case, the officer should record the steps they took to contact a supervisor. If officers are wearing body-worn cameras, they should continue to keep them turned on but should cover the camera or direct it away from the person whenever intimate body parts are exposed so that audio recording remains activated during the encounter.
Strip searches conducted on children
Any strip search of an individual under the age of 18 that involves the exposure of intimate body parts must take place in the presence of an appropriate adult. The only exception to this is cases of urgency, where there is risk of serious harm to the child or to others, or where the child has said they do not want the adult to be present during the search and the adult agrees. If this is the case, a record must be made of child’s decision and signed by the appropriate adult. Police officers cannot act as an appropriate adult. If no appropriate adult is available at the scene, officers should consider taking the child to another location where one will be available, such as their home. While conducting the search, officers should always be mindful of the particular practical and communication needs of children. The Children’s Commissioner for England obtained data from the Metropolitan Police Service on EIP searches conducted by the force on children (aged 17 or under) between 2018 and 2020. In 23% of cases across that period, there was no appropriate adult confirmed as being present.
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