The National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN) has published its review on police searches under PACE. The report suggests a number of potential changes including a new focus on safeguarding.
Motivated by the case of Child Q, and other similar cases identified by the IPOC, the NAAN conducted a review on the use of police search powers, with a focus on police searches of children and vulnerable people and the current safeguards. In the 88-page report, the NAAN identified several areas of concern including that police powers are not sufficiently understood and that the associated safeguards are applied in much narrower cases than people are aware.
The NAAN also raised concerns that the complexity of the PACE codes make them difficult to understand and that there is a lack of clarity as to which searches require an appropriate adult for children and vulnerable people. There is a lack of clarity over the best location for searches of children and vulnerable people and strip searching has been used by some police officers as a form of punishment and control. There is also a lack of parental involvement throughout the PACE framework; unless a parent is acting as an appropriate adult, they are not involved at all.
The report highlights that there is a very limited understanding of rights, search procedures and safeguards amongst children, vulnerable people, the public and professional such as teachers and that the police continue to use their powers against Black, Brown and Racialised children and young people disproportionately.
A number of recommendations are made by the report including a full review of PACE powers.
The search of Child Q rightly sent shock waves across the country; what happened to Child Q was simply unjustifiable. The sad reality, however, is that this isn’t just about one child. It is a pattern that must stop. In the last 5 years, at least 13,255 children have been strip searched. In 80% of those searches, nothing illegal was found. The finding that strip searches are used by some police officers as a means of control and punishment are deeply concerning. The report highlights just how traumatic strip searches can be for children and vulnerable people, echoing the comments of the Carlisle Inquiry which took place over a decade and a half ago.
The Children’s Commissioner, like many others, has questioned whether children should even be strip searched at all in light of the traumatic impact that such searches can have. The NAAN report considered the use of alternatives to strip searches such as the use of full body scanners in police stations. This would be welcomed, with stringent rules as to their use, as it would negate the need for a strip search at all, however, it would not assist children and young people who are subject to the same treatment as Child Q.
The NAAN report adds to the overwhelming body of research that confirms that the police continue to disproportionately use search powers against Black, Brown, and Racialised children and young people. It reports that between April 2020 and March 2021, 77% of all stop and searches conducted by the Met Police were of Black people. In addition, an analysis of Met Police Data found that over 50% of children who were strip searched in a period of two years were Black. It is evident that that the police need some discretion in order to be able to effectively carry out their duties. However, to paraphrase the words of Saqib Deshmukh, the interim chief executive of Alliance for Youth Justice, discretionary powers are dangerous in the hands of a police officer who sees Black, Brown and Racialised children as suspects rather than vulnerable children first. Every day, we see the adultification of our children and young people because the police see them as a threat rather than as highly vulnerable children.
There have been previous calls for England and Wales to adopt a similar approach to the United States of America where evidence obtained illegally is inadmissible in criminal proceedings. Whilst the idea of not being able to rely on illegally obtained evidence may assist in focusing the minds of the police as to what their powers actually are, it doesn’t help the thousands of children that are needlessly stopped and searched by police every year with no further action being taken.
The report calls on the government to ensure that children and young people are educated on their rights as part of the national curriculum in schools and this would be welcomed; we need to arm our children and young people with as much knowledge about their rights as we can. However, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of a child to question whether police are using their powers legally; that is the responsibility of police themselves.
The report makes a number of recommendations including a full government review of police powers, not just holding individual officers accountable for systemic issues. This is evidently a systemic issue, however, it could be said that there needs to be greater accountability for officers that abuse their powers. It simply cannot be said any more powerfully than the words of Child Q herself:
“All the people that allowed this to happen need to be held responsible. I was held responsible for a smell.[…]“I need to know that the people who have done this to me can’t do it to anyone else ever again. In fact so NO ONE else can do this to any other child in their care”
As lawyers, we have an important role to play in identifying and challenging the racism faced by Black, Brown and Racialised children and young people in our criminal justice system every day. For guidance on fighting racial injustice, see the following YJLC guides:
- Fighting Racial Injustice: Background, childhood, legal representation & trauma.
- Fighting Racial Injustice: Police station, diversion, CCE, effective participation, remand & sentence.
- Fighting Racial Injustice: Rap & Drill
Written by Sabrina Neves, Solicitor at GT Stewart Solicitors