Despite their shortcomings, the British Police force is still regarded by many as a reputable institution. In fact, wonderslist.com, examined the top 10 countries with the best police forces based on their performance and efforts, as well as security measures and systems they have in place to effectively enforce the law. They ranked the police force in England as number one and Italy as number 10. Furthermore, the BBC (18 May 2021) claimed that the British police training requires over 2000 hours of training compared with just over 500 hours or about 21 weeks for the USA. The implication here is that the British system is more thorough than many other parts of the world. How then do we explain the catastrophic systemic failures associated with the strip and search case of a teenage schoolgirl in December 2020 in London? There were at least four major wrongs and none of these seemed to help make matters right.
In December 2020, a 15-year-old Black female student was taken out of an examination she was doing at school because a teacher said they could smell cannabis on her. The police were called and the student, who because of her age, could not be named, was referred to as Child Q. She was then taken to the school’s medical room where she was strip searched by two female police officers for cannabis, while two members of the school staff remained outside the room. No drugs were found, and she was sent back to do her exams!
The first wrong that took place was that even if the teachers smelt cannabis on a student, that did not mean they were smoking it or carrying it in their possession. The specially trained school staff for safe guarding should have been called to have a chat with child Q. Furthermore, it should be noted that the smell of cannabis on a person does not necessarily mean they are in possession of, or smoking the drug. For example, if the police were to stop my car while I am travelling in some parts of Birmingham, UK, they might also smell cannabis even though I neither carry nor smoke the weed.
The second wrong that took place during this incident was that no other adult was present, and her parents were also not present. Because the student was only 15 years of age at the time, an adult should have been present. It is puzzling in the extreme, that the girl’s parents or carers were not available for such an important search and possible potential criminal charge. Because of the speed with which this whole incident took place at the school, a BBC report said a safe-guarding report found that the search of the 15-year-old, was unjustified and racism was likely to have been a factor.
The third wrong that took place was that, not only was child Q stripped searched, she was made to remove her sanitary towels. She was then subject to a thorough search or scrutiny of her intimate parts and subsequently asked to put the sanitary towels back on. This is undoubtedly the most degrading and shocking aspect of this incident. The fourth and disappointing wrong is that it is now claimed by Child Q’s family that she has changed from a “top of the class” student to “a shell of her former bubbly self”, and is now self-harming and requiring therapy.
The overall result of this incident is that the girl’s family is suing her school and the police force, which said its officers’ actions “should never have happened”. Scotland Yard has also apologised for the incident and said it “should never have happened”. The Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) has investigated three police officers for misconduct. It is both a travesty and ironic that the highly professional police force in the UK could have been involved in such a series of unsavoury acts. While it is often said, two wrongs don’t make a right, when a fully-trained police force and school staff make four wrongs, this is truly an appalling example of professionalism gone wrong.
Tony Talburt Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in Black Studies at Birmingham City University in Britain.