Police Strip Searches

(Private Members Statement, 24 October 2019, Legislative Assembly)

Police in my electorate do an important job keeping people safe and NSW Police has made massive advances to gain the community’s trust after the corruption and homophobic policing scandals of the 80s and 90s. However police’s relationship with a new generation is being undermined by routine, unnecessary, intimidating and humiliating strip searches, including at inner city music festivals.

There has been an almost twentyfold increase in the number of strip searches carried out in New South Wales in less than 12 years, with the number reaching 5,483 in the 2018 to 2019 financial year – up from 277 in 2006. This increase corresponds with growing reports of intrusive and aggressive tactics used in strip searches.

A recent report into strip searches by the University of New South Wales, commissioned by the Redfern Legal Centre, reveals disturbing trends.

Over 90 per cent of strip searches are conducted because police suspect a person is carrying prohibited drugs. But only 30 per cent of strip searches in the field result in a criminal charge and only 16.5 per cent of these charges are for drug supply with almost 82 per cent for personal drug possession. Almost half – 45 per cent – of all recorded strip searches are of young people aged 25 years and under.

This week it was revealed that seven children were strip searched at the Splendour in the Grass festival last year, all but one without a parent or guardian present including a 16 year old girl who was asked to remove all clothing including her panty liner and squat.

The other group overrepresented in strip search statistics are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They are the subject of 10 per cent of all recorded strip searches, but the report found many searches are not recorded by police. Strip searches on Indigenous people often fail to result in charges or get challenged in court. Alarmingly the report identified strip searches being carried out on Indigenous children as young as 10 in public view. This practice is adding to intergenerational trauma.

Evidence from the NSW Police Commissioner during budget estimates suggested that police KPIs and targets are fuelling the rise in strip searches within the community and the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission must investigate.

Strip searches can cause significant psycho-social harm. There are widespread reports of searches being undertaken without adequate privacy, under intimidating police directions and involving humiliating measures like being forced to strip naked and squat and cough. Constituents who have experienced strip searches tell me they feel violated and no longer trust police.

Strip searches are supposed to be an option of last resort, used when police suspect on reasonable grounds that it is necessary, serious and urgent. Suspecting on reasonable grounds that someone has something unlawful in their possession alone is not sufficient to warrant a strip search.

By law, police are required to conduct the least invasive search as practicable and not search genitals or breasts unless it is necessary. The search is required to preserve the person’s dignity and privacy.

Clarity in the law is needed to strengthen dignity and privacy requirements and ensure strip searches are only used in serious and urgent circumstances. Searches of genitals and breasts and of children without a court order must be banned.

Constituents tell me that music festivals are now saturated with police and drug detection dogs making the atmosphere of what is meant to be a fun, social and cultural event intimidating and punitive with punters feeling like they are under suspicion.

The increase in police presence, drug dogs and strip searches has not resulted in any safety improvements at events. Indeed the NSW Coroner’s Court is investigating six recent drug-related deaths at music festivals that had strong police presences and evidence has shown heavy handed policing encouraged some patrons to take large doses of drugs to avoid being caught.

It is difficult to determine what we are achieving with routine strip searches: young people continue to take drugs but engage in riskier behaviour; the vast majority of searches don’t lead to a charge and those that do are largely for possession of otherwise law abiding citizens. A certain outcome is that many people now feel traumatised and no longer trust police.

Strip searches should be reserved for safety risks to the public, like concealing a weapon to conduct a terrorist act – not health concerns like drug use. The coroner’s draft report on deaths at music festivals was leaked to media last week and will likely recommend the decriminalisation of drugs for personal use, pill testing, a drug summit and an overhaul of strip search laws.

I call on the government to scale back strip searches and adopt a new evidence based approach to drug use that helps build positive relationships between police and the community, as has occurred with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival and party.