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‘What happened to Child Q isn’t surprising as I’ve seen how broken the Met Police is from the inside’

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When Mary Pimm discusses the lack of scrutiny over the Metropolitan Police, she knows what she’s talking about: she spent five years at the helm of police custody inspections in Hackney. Independent Custody Visitors (ICVs) are members of the community in each borough who volunteer to visit police stations (in theory unannounced) to check on the treatment and welfare of people held in police custody.

But in Mary’s eyes the scheme does not work. As chair of Hackney ‘s ICV between 2007 and 2012, she saw it “gutted” by mayors. Around 200 custody volunteers are supposed to inspect police cells. Yet they are not able to inspect custody suites immediately on arrival – with time left for officers to clear up any potential signs of wrongdoing, academic Dr John Kendall tells MyLondon.

In the mid-2000s, the-then Metropolitan Police Authority insisted that all current custody inspectors sign a new contract that took away their right to speak to the media about what they saw in custody suites – effectively a gagging order. Dozens resigned in protest.

READ MORE: Child Q’s ordeal in her own words: Girl strip-searched at school says ‘I can’t go a day without wanting to give up’

Protests have broken out in Hackney in recent weeks over the treatment of black schoolchildren by the Met Police

Later years saw ICV staff coordinator numbers slashed, meetings cut back and ability to liaise with other volunteer inspectors across London severely limited. In a fierce 2012 paper, Mary writes of her experience: “One panel officer was castigated for ‘believing the detainee’ instead of the Force Medical Officer and custody sergeant, despite the fact that the custody record validated the detainee. Panel members were told that they should contact the Duty Officer only in exceptional cases. And joint attempts by local panels and police to reinstate regular six-weekly meetings were deliberately thwarted by the mayor’s police authority.”

She alleges that during the 2011 London riots, some ICVs reporting detainee complaints about police brutality on the way to the custody suite were told by co-ordinators that this was “irrelevant”, as it happened outside the cell. And she claims that the supposedly independent custody inspectors were also emailed by the Deputy Mayor in charge of policing at the time, urging them to tell community groups that the police were behaving well.

Just weeks ago, her borough of Hackney was hit with a major police scandal, as it emerged the 15-year-old black girl dubbed Child Q was strip-searched by officers, while she was on her period, over false suspicions that she had cannabis on her in 2020. While Child Q was not taken into formal custody, Mary sees parallels with the lack of robust checks on police powers in the capital. Since the shooting of Harry Stanley in 1999 – a Scottish man shot dead by police on his way home from a South Hackney pub – the borough has been on “police watch” and has come to expect the worst. “But the Child Q case sets a new low,” she says.

Dr Koshka Duff

Dr Koshka Duff was humiliated by officers in Hackney during a strip search in 2013, for which she won damages

The officers who strip searched her have been moved from the frontline – but are still working for the force on (it would appear) full pay. Mary Pimm says it is not good enough: “When an employee is facing disciplinary or criminal charges, moving roles on full pay does not constitute punishment…These officers shouldn’t be on duty until the disciplinary process is complete.”

Nearby Stoke Newington police station – which Mary Pimm used to inspect – had its own parallel scandal in Hackney in 2013, with the “appalling” strip search of academic and campaigner Koshka Duff. She was humiliated by officers who were told to “treat her like a terrorist”, and won damages from the force only this January. But of course, these are just the cases we know about.

Mary recalls in horror visiting a custody suite in Hackney and some 10 year olds were there, without their parents. Oversight of strip searches outside of custody is “even less monitored” than the ICV system, she says. But for her the key problem is that school children are strip searched at all: “the age of criminal responsibility of 10 is far too low, while oversight of police custody and strip searches is more toothless than ever.”

Metropolitan Police data shows that an average of five children are strip-searched every day by officers in London. The figures, first reported by LBC, show that out of 5,279 children searched after an arrest in the past three years, 3,939 – around 75 per cent – were from ethnic minority backgrounds. The data did not cover children who were not arrested but still strip-searched – like Child Q – so the number is likely to be even higher, as MyLondon reported.

Mary holds little faith in a forthcoming Home Office review of local scrutiny of police powers, as it appears to only be consulting policing partners and police commissioners – falling within the pattern of Home Secretaries being terrified of upsetting police forces. “What we’ve seen over the last decade is that governments of all hues do what the police want,” says author and campaigner Dr John Kendall, a visiting scholar at Birmingham Law School. “There is a policy of following the police’s desires by parties on both sides,” he adds.

Change therefore needs to be foisted on the Met Police by pressure from activists, the custody expert tells MyLondon: “The Met Police needs outside help and regulation. An organisation like the police cannot police itself.” The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is now investigating Child Q’s case, but it can only look at wrongdoing after it’s happened. “What’s useful about the custody scheme is that people can arrive unannounced. How do you regulate what police officers do at schools and on the beat?” Dr Kendall asks.

One answer could be the network of campaigns and monitoring organisations that have grown in recent years – from NetPol to Hackney CopWatch. These are volunteer-led groups with an increasingly-beady eye on the force. Mary is emboldened by Londoners demanding “decency and honesty” from the police and their leaders. She calls for a step-change in scrutiny of the Met’s treatment of young people, without which, “Britain’s tradition of policing by consent is at serious risk.”

Dr John Kendall says successive mayoralties have failed to hold Met Police wrongdoing to account

Dr John Kendall says successive mayoralties have failed to hold Met Police wrongdoing to account

Dr Kendall feels like we may be approaching a tipping point in terms of the growing public appetite for an overhaul of policing. “Tony Blair once boasted he gave the police everything they asked for,” he says. As scandal after scandal hits London’s police force, that attitude may start to shift.

In a recent statement, the Metropolitan Police defended its strip search policy, known as More Thorough Search where Intimate Parts are exposed (MTIP). A spokesperson said: “Every search must be lawful, proportionate and necessary and carried out with respect, dignity and empathy. While some may question whether any child should be subject to an MTIP or strip-search, there are occasions when it is very necessary to prevent harm to children who may be exploited by gangs, county lines and drug dealers.” The force has apologised to Child Q for her treatment.

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has pledged that ‘much tougher guidelines’ will be introduced in response to the ‘hugely distressing’ strip-searching of the black schoolgirl referred to as Child Q

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Officer for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) said: “MOPAC are committed to fully scrutinising the treatment of suspects detained in custody and addressing any issues and disproportionality relating to the use of police powers – including strip searching and the use of force.”

MOPAC’s local stop and search community monitoring groups (CMGs), who scrutinise stop and search practice, also review the published data on strip searches, and are able to interrogate that data in their local review meetings. City Hall says that where relevant, they will report on the use of force and/or strip search, promptly escalating any specific concerns.

ICVs are currently brought together on a quarterly basis to review the visits that have been conducted in the period, and are offered training, development and networking opportunities throughout the year. Since 2020, there have been over 100 ICV meetings, training and development sessions, according to the mayor’s office for policing, and MOPAC says it is working to “further strengthen community oversight of policing”. It will reportedly include piloting a new custody record review scheme, which involves examining a sample of detainee custody records including strip searches. MOPAC is also understood to be overhauling its community scrutiny mechanisms following the Child Q case, to “ensure they are representative of our diverse communities”.

Responding to concerns over the officers involved in Child Q’s strip search not being suspended, a spokesperson for the Met Police said: “It’s important we don’t pre-empt the outcome of the IOPC investigation which is considering the actions of the officers and any conduct matters. While we are aware of the findings of the safeguarding review, no misconduct has been proven at this stage.

“Any decision to suspend an officer is taken by a senior officer following very careful consideration of all the circumstances, including managing risks to the officer, the public and the wider Met. This process is governed by national Police Regulations set by the Home Office. Whether an officer can continue to work, with restrictions as necessary, is always the first consideration.

“These regulations also dictate specific criteria about when and why an officer’s pay can be stopped, and the circumstances in this case do not meet that threshold. Even when officers are suspended, regulations mean they are suspended on full pay except in very specific circumstances.” The mayor’s office was contacted for comment regarding the state of the Independent Custody Visitors scheme.

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Josiah joined MyLondon as the outlet’s first City Hall Editor in October 2021, reporting on the Mayor, the London Assembly, the Met police, Transport for London, and wider London politics.

He moved to South London from Brussels in 2015, working in communications for the Electoral Reform Society, and covering Westminster politics as a freelance journalist. Originally from Cornwall, he is now also a proud Londoner. Josiah has appeared on BBC Radio 4, Times Radio, LBC and other outlets to discuss current affairs and general political chaos.

If you have an untold story – whether it’s a housing nightmare, an unfair decision or a local scandal, get in touch at [email protected] or contact Josiah on Twitter.

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https://www.mylondon.news/news/east-london-news/what-happened-child-q-isnt-23532475