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Belfast Live
Belfast Live
Damien Edgar & Jonathan McCambridge

PSNI ‘appeared to ignore rules’ in strip searches of children, review finds

The PSNI “appeared to ignore the rules” by not ensuring an appropriate adult was present at the vast majority of strip searches carried out on children in custody last year, a review has found.

The review was ordered after previous concerns were raised about the use of the extreme measure on young people in police custody.

The NIPB made 10 recommendations in total following its review, which was carried out by a Human Rights Advisor and their officials.

Read more: Young child injured in collision involving bus on busy Belfast road

Eight recommendations were made to the PSNI and two to the Department of Justice.

The human rights review found that 27 strip searches of children and young people were carried out by the PSNI in 2022, 25 of which were classed as urgent.

There were six searches where an Appropriate Adult (AA) was present when the search was conducted.

In 2023 up until April 14, 11 strip searches were carried out, one was classed as urgent and there were five where an appropriate adult was present. In the 2023 figures six of those did not have an AA present. Of those six on two occasions the Detained Person did not want the AA present.

According to the review, the PSNI argued those were justified searches, but some members of the Policing Board and the Children's Commissioner for Northern Ireland, among other agencies, questioned those justifications.

The PSNI insisted that its officers acted correctly in carrying out the searches under the urgent rationale.

The review also identified issues, which exist in other parts of the UK as well, around the data recorded in relation to strip searches.

"Reliability of data and specifically the inaccurate information provided by the PSNI in response to questions by the Policing Board is a concern and one which is not unique to Northern Ireland," the review reads.

One of the recommendations made centres on the need to record decisions regarding strip searches, and their justifications in the custody record.

Speaking about the review and recommendations made, Policing Board Chair Deirdre Toner said: "The whole idea is we have to have a human rights approach to how we look after people in vulnerable situations, including in custody.

"We did find from internal and external information that the rules, I suppose you could say, weren't being followed properly.

"But also that the policy and how people were experiencing their time in custody was not appropriate.

"Bottom line, a human rights approach is what we should be doing to ensure that children and young people are being protected.

"Our job is to look at how we can measure good, bad and indifferent performance and if you follow a human rights approach to this, it makes sense that they follow these recommendations."

Ms Toner said that the Board would hold police to account in terms of ensuring that the recommendations were implemented in a timely manner.

"It is a main job of the board through the committees and on a monthly basis, scrutinising what they're doing and also checking that the information we're getting is robust and has followed the guidelines in terms of the right recording of what they said they were going to do," she added.

"The eight recommendations that were made are there to protect young people in custody and make sure that proper procedures are followed so that they have a positive experience in very difficult circumstances.

"I think the police and the Policing Board do take it seriously and the whole thing of having an appropriate adult in the room is crucial."

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd (BelfastLive)

The Policing Board said it wished to see the PSNI and Department of Justice "implement the relevant recommendations as a matter of urgency" and said the PSNI provide "a timeframe for implementation within six months of publication of this report".

John Wadham, the Human Rights Adviser on the NI policing board, said the issues with strip searching were not a “wholesale problem”.

“What we have is a particular minority of people in custody, 2%, and a process whereby custody officers are trying to do their best. What we have criticised is, are they given the information that they need?” he said.

“Because, I don’t know whether anybody’s looked at the current rules, but I find them incredibly difficult to understand.

“So we would like to see better rules, and we would like to see better recording of the justification for those, as well.”

He added: “I’m not trying to sugar the pill, our criticisms are in the report. There are problems and we knew there were problems, that’s why we did this report.

“The evidence of those problems is in the report and some ideas about how those problems could be resolved and you heard from the PSNI about their commitment to do that. So I don’t think it’s a wholesale problem, but it is a problem that does affect those 27 people.”

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said he welcomed the report.

Mr Todd added that safeguarding had to be understood in the context of a “complex environment” and that it was justifiable for the searches of minors to take place, but more transparency was required.

“Safeguarding is important, but it’s safeguarding for us in a very complex environment,” he said.

“The fact that we only use this power with 2% of the children and young persons arrested illustrates that we use it very very, very, very, very sparingly, because we understand the impact.”

He added: “What we absolutely have to get better at is outlining our rationale and reasons for taking those decisions, because I don’t think any of us are making the case that none of those searches should have taken place.

“And I don’t think any of us are making that all those cases, you know, should have absolutely waited for whatever length of time for an appropriate adult.

“What we’re missing, and in fairness to our staff what we need to do to support them better, is to be able to be fully accountable and transparent around our decision making process.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said: "The Department notes the publication of the report and is considering its recommendations in the context of work to revise the PACE legislation and its supporting Codes of Practice."

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