Stop acting like a child. How systemic racism attempted to criminalise Child Q




This is the second part of a two-part article by Former Senior Political Adviser to the Mayor of London and Director of Policing and Equalities into the Child Q scandal. Click here for Part One

You smell of Cannabis

The reason given for the intimate body search of Child Q was she smelled of Cannabis.

Oh really? Are you sure? Because as anyone who lives within the M25 knows, the reality is you can smell Cannabis on any given day on any high street throughout London's entire length and breadth.

Smoking Cannabis has become ubiquitous in the capital. One can only assume the teachers involved in this horrific debacle grew up on a remote farm in Norfolk or the Isle of Skye. Joking aside – where a teacher grew up, and their experience of black people, the extent of anti-racist teacher training are all fundamental issues in London schools.

Cannabis is the Met Police's number one catch-all dragnet offence that has criminalised at least two generations of our communities. Both here and in America, we have seen the devastating impact of drug enforcement as detailed by the seminal work of African American academic and activist Michelle Alexandra's opus Magnus "The New Jim Crow".

According to the UK Government's figures, Black people were seven times more likely to be searched for drug offences than white people, even though black people are no more likely to use drugs.

If you randomly search 100 whites and 100 blacks, you'll find precisely the same amount of drugs – so why does the predominant policing focus on black people? It's a form of legalised harassment that has no justification.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, recognises that racial profiling of black youth by the Met has led to demands for stricter public oversight and scrutiny and has questioned 'smell of cannabis' as sole grounds for stop and search. Mayor Khan needs to look at the approach of other UK cities on this issue where simple Cannabis possession no longer leads to arrest or a charge but a referral to a health advice support project.

Yet still we see the Met's relentless focus on black youth and Cannabis even though, according to the British Crime Survey, white British people consistently, and by that, I mean over the last 30 years, admit way more drug use than the African Caribbean community. So why the unceasing focus on black youth?

The reason is that the culture of institutional racism within the Met that has seen the so-called war on drugs translate into a war on us.

Cannabis possession is the go-to wholesale catch-all offence used by the Met to racially profile black youth, trapping them into an institutionally racist criminal justice system that escalates inequality and injustice at every step of the judicial process.

The extent to which institutional racism is baked into the system is highlighted by research by the drug research charity Release that demonstrates that black and white people are policed differently regarding drug possession. Black people are much more likely to be charged than white people. Even where the white suspect has a more complex criminal history, white people are still more likely to receive a caution than a black person with no criminal record for the personal possession of Cannabis.

In 2017 I was part of a research team, Viv Ahmun, former CEO of Involve (a specialist alcohol and drugs addictions agency), Blaksox co-founder, and Annette Dale Perera, former Strategic Director of NHS services and a member of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

We published our ground breaking report Structural Racism As UK Drug Policy, where we consulted and spoke with black youth across the UK on the policing of Cannabis and drug policy.

The conclusion of our consultations was clear.

We need to ensure young black faces are at the all-white drug policy tables where drug policy is made. We need to recognise that the decriminalisation of Cannabis, whilst required to stop the wholesale criminalisation of black youth, would not end institutional racism in the criminal justice system.

In a proactive intervention, Lord Simon Woolley speaking to the Guardian newspaper in September 2021, said a punitive drug policy was "one of the most tangible and damaging means through which systemic racism is experienced in black communities".

Reflecting the experience of Child Q some five years ago, he spoke of the "profound dehumanisation" of stop-and-search tactics and strip searches,

"You are stripped bare and have to crudely show that you have nothing hidden anywhere. The sense of being both powerless and humiliated instils anger and deep distrust in not only law enforcement but also the authorities that sanction it."

Today Blaksox and Transform (one of the world's leading global drug policy think tanks) are in common allyship, delivering a two-year project that focuses on all of the issues highlighted in the Blaksox research report cited above.

The project's key objectives are to inform our communities about drug policy's toxic effects, examine the international experience of decriminalisation of Cannabis, and explore social and racial equity issues in the context of possible decriminalisation and legalisation. Our Barbershop consultations on this issue have been incredibly successful.

What is clear is that many in the wider community have not picked on the relationship between drug enforcement policy and institutional racism played out through stop and search.

In addition, the project highlights the implications and opportunities represented by burgeoning Cannabis economies in an increasing number of countries around the world that have either decriminalised or fully legalised Cannabis; another goal of the project is to ensure we have young black voices at the drug policy tables.

So, Child Q is far from alone from suffering nightmarish racism due to drug laws.

The Met stopped and searched Olympic track star Bianca Williams and partner Ricardo dos Santos whilst in their car in July 2021. Just like Child Q, the search revealed nothing. Met Police officers used the same excuse' suspicion of drugs' when they searched their vehicle while their three-month-old baby sat in the back.

The Mayor of London is responding to the growing lack of legitimacy crisis facing the Met, which is essentially a consequence of UK drug laws being used to racially profile black youth. He is consulting and currently considering potential policy changes about how the Met polices simple Cannabis possession.

"Stop and searches with grounds solely based on the smell of Cannabis will be subjected to London-wide scrutiny panels and body-worn video footage is being made available to communities for further scrutiny to ensure officers are not relying on the smell of Cannabis alone when deciding to stop and search, and use grounds based on multiple objective factors."

We think Mayor Khan needs to go much farther; Sadiq Khan needs to decriminalise Cannabis and follow the lead of both Bristol and the West Midlands in ceasing all arrests and prosecutions for simple personal possession of Cannabis.

Suspected Cannabis possession is the number one reason Met police officers formally cite as the most used legal rationale for the vast majority of stop and searches conducted in London.

Cannabis possession is the gateway for young black people, as detailed by David Lammy's excellent report into an institutionally racist criminal justice system. A system where racial profiling and disproportionate sanctions escalate at every step of judicial administration, particularly for black women charged with drug offences.

We believe we should expunge convictions for simple Cannabis possession from people's criminal records. Given the realities of institutional racism, this should be seen as a reparatory act of social equity and justice. Too many young black people's lives are held back because of low-level drug convictions.

Thinking about the hysterical reaction to the "smell of Cannabis" by the school and Met and assessing the credibility of their 'reasonable suspicions', let me ask you this question: when's the last time you read or heard about a secondary school-aged girl found to be hiding Cannabis in her anus or vagina whilst at school? Come on…

The fact that a school, a supposed place of safety, has been found to have demanded the personal, intimate body search of one of its pupils is a stunning and profoundly shocking revelation.

The reality of systemic racism in the UK means that the Met Police, the school, and the teachers responsible all share the same cultural perspectives on race, and both institutions deny the existence of institutional racism.

In the case of Child Q, this is precisely why no one, at any point during this horrific debacle, thought that they were doing was wrong. This is what we mean by systemic racism, discrimination embedded deep in the cultural fabric, the DNA of British institutions.

There are enormous implications for the Mayor, the Met and the school.

He is alive to two critically important realities. The first is the crisis of confidence among women as a consequence of the murder of Sarah Everard by a Met Police officer and the desecration of sisters Nichole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. The second is that London's African and Caribbean heritage community has the lowest level of public confidence of any ethnic group in London.

This means that most women and black people, who make up the majority of Londoners, do not trust the Met. This is why choosing who will be the next Commissioner is critically essential.

The IOPC has launched an investigation into alleged misconduct by the officers. Mayor Sadiq Khan has published a letter he wrote to the IPOC demanding that they elevate the charges to gross misconduct. Sadly, it's not gross misconduct that would lead to instant dismissal if proven.

The Headmistress and teachers involved or sanctioned this strip search should be sacked. If rumours are correct that the Chair of the Board of Governors sought to dissuade the child's Mum from making a complaint or attempted to bury, downplay her criticism, then they should be forced to resign too.

London's response is critical. Mayor Sadiq Khan needs to call a London exhaustive, comprehensive safeguarding review involving parents, schools and the Met in seeking to draft new policy guidelines that decriminalise personal Cannabis possession and prevent the intimate body searches of children in schools.

The Home Secretary must ban all such intimate searches in schools though I can't see this happening in a month of Sundays, so the Mayor is our only hope.

Until the Met Police admit this reality, there can be no place for police in schools where they potentially pose a serious safeguarding threat to all black children.

Over the last decade, we have seen a massive expansion of police in our schools, according to the Met's figures, without a clear regulatory framework.

Despite this, there are no transparent monitoring, policy and procedures that cover the arrests and searches conducted in our school.

The horrendous case of Child Q also highlights the community concern that police officers in schools have further criminalised young people for issues that would've usually have been dealt with by schools and parents.

What would be interesting is looking at the Met data for school arrests and charging rates and the ethnic breakdown of children accused of criminal offences. It would be interesting, but the reality is remarkable given what we know about racial disproportionality and policing - the data does not exist.

No one thought it important enough to monitor a failure indicative of the dangerous level of complacency we endure regarding racism.


What happens next? There have been many marches and protests in response, but to ensure this never happens again, we need a clear and unified agenda for change to prevent the usual fragmentation of our cause.

A word of warning; The Met's favoured tactic is to apologise profusely and ask, "what can we do?" then offer to pay some of their ‘critics’ to advise them without ever conceding on the critical issue of institutional racism.

In the context of the rising incidence of Police racism, the Met's tactic effectively amounts to buying good PR cover, enabling the Met to say, "Met Police critic X is now working with us to help us understand more about the issues."

If we wish to move the dial on this issue and protect black girls, we need to have a unified consensus around a coherent set of demands.

After reflecting on these issues, we offer these possible suggestions for further elaboration and discussion.

  • Institutional police racism is a serious safeguarding threat. As long as the Met Police continue to deny the existence of institutional racism, there should be no place for Met officers in our schools.
  • Mayor Sadiq Khan has written to the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) demanding that the officers involved face gross misconduct charges rather than the lower-level misconduct charges that do not lead to sackings if found guilty.
  • In addition, we would say it is vital for community reassurance that the Police officers be immediately suspended from duty pending the outcome of the IOPC investigation. It is not good enough to remove their front-line duties. Given the extraordinary level of public concern, it is shocking that this has not already happened.
  • The Mayor of London should follow the example of Bristol and the West Midlands and decriminalise the personal possession of Cannabis.
  • The Headteacher, the Chair of the school Board of Governors and the teachers involved must all be sacked immediately. Teachers whose views on black children are infested with racism should be barred from teaching in any school, period.
  • Mayor Sadiq Khan should call a London comprehensive Safeguarding Review. The term of references should be co-produced with London's black communities.
  • He should resource London's Black communities to convene a community conference that details the stats, incidence, and policy and sets out new protective and monitoring procedures relating to the arrest strip-searching of children in our schools.
  • The Home Secretary bans all strip searches of children in schools.

Rehearsing the hurt and pain is one thing. Having a clear political agenda for change is another. We will be working with newly formed Alliance of Police Accountability, youth groups like Hackney Account, the Black Men 4 Change network in convening a round table to discuss these critical matters.

The issue of police officers in our schools needs to become a key election issue in the local council elections in May.

If you or your organisation would like to attend the APA roundtable to discuss driving a political/policy response then please email us at