By Janine White: Culture Columnist
The relationship between law enforcement agencies and the concept of being “above the law” has long been a topic of debate and scrutiny. Police officers are responsible for enforcing laws, maintaining public order, and protecting communities.
Concerns about the abuse of power, instances of misconduct, and the lasting trauma inflicted by certain police practices, such as strip searches, have raised important questions about whether the police are genuinely held accountable to the same standards as the general public.
In a democratic society, we expect everyone, including the police, to play by the rules yet in 2021/22 there were 75,020 complaints lodged against the police and when it comes to strip searches, there have been instances where police officers have been accused of exceeding their authority and violating the rights and dignity of individuals.
The Children’s Commissioner, Rachel de Souza, has been vocal about her concerns and how she believes the policing culture has been allowed to go unchallenged for far too long. She is shining a spotlight on an issue that needs to dig deeper and be reevaluated and addressed. For Rachel, it’s time to strengthen guidelines, ramp up oversight, and ensure that everyone is playing by the rules.
At present there are no formal statistics on specific police actions such as strip searches and all figures are simply put under the heading of stop and search, regardless of how much of the person or property was put on display. Strip searches are pretty controversial and for a good reason. While they might be necessary for certain situations, we can’t ignore the emotional toll they can take on people. Imagine being subjected to a strip search – it can leave you feeling humiliated, violated, and incredibly vulnerable. The effects of this can be traumatising and for those who have already experienced trauma in their past, this can reawaken panic, anxiety, fear, and mental health issues that they once had under control, possibly having already spent several years in therapy.
Decisions need to be made quickly, under extreme pressure as they put themselves in danger to protect others…
A fundamental principle of a just society is the rule of law, which asserts that no one is above the law, including those tasked with enforcing it. Upholding this principle is essential for maintaining the trust and ensuring a fair and equitable society.
Without detailed information about what is happening, when, and how, accountability could be considered a myth that cannot be upheld. Holding the police accountable for their actions ensures that they stay within the legal boundaries, respect our individual rights, and maintain the trust we place in them.
We need strong checks and balances and effective oversight mechanisms to keep this balance intact. In response to the growing concern surrounding the practices employed by the judgment of officers, there have been steps put in to ensure this accountability in the form of community review groups, the IOPC, and a clear complaints system. However, only 13% of formal complaints were investigated during 2020/21, and the government has requested that forces send in specific data about strip searches. At this time, this is a voluntary request and not mandatory.
Policing is a complex issue that requires accountability while acknowledging the challenges faced by law enforcement.
Without explicit guidelines for officers, they have to make difficult decisions every day. Many of these decisions need to be made quickly and under extreme pressure as they put themselves in danger to protect others while working many hours. The training for police officers focuses on keeping order, investigating, and making a first arrest, while the mental health of suspects is only addressed in terms of how to investigate without restraint rather than how the suspect feels after the event. The routes into policing have been shortened which allows less time to get to know the officer and work through any areas that may need reflection before putting them on the street with these powers.
It also reduces the opportunity for officers to learn best practices, and empathy and truly understand the potential effects of their decisions. Policing is a complex issue that requires accountability while acknowledging the challenges faced by law enforcement. Strip searches, in particular, need careful scrutiny and robust safeguards to minimize trauma and protect individual rights. The Children’s Commissioner’s observations remind us of the urgent need to challenge and improve the policing culture. By holding the police accountable, implementing necessary reforms, and respecting the well-being and dignity of all individuals involved, we can strive for a law enforcement system that truly upholds the rule of law.
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