Anti-strip search campaign gains momentum in NSW

A false positive drug dog indication at a music festival can lead to a demeaning strip search.

The NSW government has begun a crackdown on civil liberties. Sniffer dogs and police are harassing more people at train stations, and strip searches of young people, Aboriginal and people in regional NSW are on the rise. 

In 2014–15 there were 3735 strip searches in NSW. In 2017–18 this figure rose to 5483 — a 46% rise in four years. In 67% of cases, nothing was found.

Public transport users and music festival attendees are also being harassed by the widespread use of sniffer dogs. A positive drug dog indication can lead to a demeaning total personal search. 

In 2009, when data was first collected, sniffer dog searches were carried out on 17,321 people. On average, about 15,000 people have been searched each year in NSW by sniffer dogs over the past 10 years.

Just before the NSW Coalition state government was re-elected in March, police strip searched an Aboriginal man in inner city Glebe, on the street, in front of passers-by. A pedestrian captured the assault on their phone, and the footage gained almost 100,000 views. 

The Aboriginal Legal Service also reported its grave concerns that “Aboriginal children as young as 10 in remote communities across NSW are being subjected to full-body strip searches in full view of members of the public”.

This year, police have curtained off areas of Central Station and strip searched young people behind privacy screens at least three times.

NSW police have the legal right to carry out these assaults under the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (LEPRA). However, there are many instances when police exceed the bounds of the law.

LEPRA allows police to conduct strip searches where it is deemed “necessary and urgent”. Police need additional “reasonable doubt” to search members of the public.

Section 33 of the LEPRA says a strip search must be carried out in an enclosed area, body cavities should never be checked, the search should not involve the removal of any clothing unnecessarily and an officer should never touch an individual.

However, there have been incidences of strip searches carried out in public, with police officers touching victims and with a police officer of the opposite sex present (searches can only be conducted with an officer of the same sex). In some cases, children as young as 10 have been strip searched and asked to squat and cough.

What should you do when told by a police officer you will be strip searched? 

First, tell them you do not consent to the strip search. This will assist in legal proceedings later. Secondly, ask for the police officer’s name and police station. This will also assist in proceedings.

However, if the police officer is determined to strip search you and you refuse, you could be charged with hindering police work. In this case, having a friend or bystander filming, from a safe distance, can stop the police from carrying out a more violent assault. 

Music festival safety is critical, as police have justified the rise in strip searches as a means of preventing drugs from entering music festivals. The NSW government is content with strip searching music festival participants, rather than proposing measures that would ensure more safety at music festivals, such as the legalisation of recreational drugs or anonymous drug testing programs. 

Redfern Legal Centre launched a Safe and Sound campaign last December, which aims to stop unnecessary strip searches, provide fairness and dignity for young people and ensure safe music and cultural festivals for young people. It also aims to see laws around strip searching changed.

Strip searching is traumatising and degrading. In particular, women who have been sexually assaulted can suffer a repeat of the degrading mental effects of the original incident and incidences. 

Redfern Legal Centre’s campaign is a welcome step against the government’s attacks on civil liberties. It joins Sniff Off, an online campaign against police use of sniffer dogs against the population.

In the lead up to this year’s state election, young people rallied in large numbers with the demand that the government back off from introducing harsh restrictions on music venues and festivals in a “Don't Kill Live Music” action.

Both Redfern Legal Centre’s legal campaign and the political campaign against police strip searching and sniffer dogs harassment, will be critical to pushing back against Coalition state and federal governments, emboldened by recent election wins.

[Contact Redfern Legal Centre if you have been strip searched or harassed by police. Socialist Alliance members Rachel Evans and Susan Price were strip searched after a refugee rally in December, 2017, and are involved in the Safe and Sound campaign.] 

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