Extraordinary rise in NSW police strip searches

Police strip search at will, often targeting young people and the marginalised.

The number of strip searches carried out by NSW police has risen almost 20-fold in less than 12 years, with young people being the main targets, a new report has found.  

Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police, which was released on August 22, notes “just under half of all recorded strip searches in the 2017-18 financial year were young people aged 25 years and younger.” This included 296 children — the youngest aged 10 — many of whom were searched without an adult present, despite this being a legal requirement.

Commissioned by the Redfern Legal Centre and authored by University of NSW Law academics Dr Michael Grewcock and Dr Vicki Sentas, the report is a damning exposé of the abusive nature of police strip searches in NSW.

It comes just two months after an open letter signed by more than 50 Australian legal organisations was sent to the state government calling for reforms to NSW strip search laws. Signatories included the Aboriginal Legal Service, National Justice Project, UNSW, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Community Legal Centres NSW, Australian Lawyers Alliance, Women’s Legal Service NSW, and the Human Rights Law Centre.

The report states: “Strip searches are an ‘inherently humiliating and degrading’ violation of the right to bodily integrity for any person, and have been recognised as such by the courts.

“They have been categorised as ‘enforced nudity by the state’ and maybe experienced as a form of sexual assault.”  

Despite this, the report found that in 2017-18, 5483 strip searches were conducted in the field and a further 9381 occurred inside police stations.

This equates to a per capita strip search rate of 68 per 100,000 — almost ten times the rate of strip searches when compared with Queensland police.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were disproportionately targeted: they accounted for 10% of strip searches in the field and 22% in custody, but only make up 3% of the population. The report found police often did not record strip searches that Indigenous people reported to lawyers.

Research showed that only about 30% of strip searches resulted in criminal charges being laid, the majority (more than 80%) for minor drug possession offences. The report argues this is a direct misuse of the law as suspicion of minor drug possession offences alone is not enough to meet the legal threshold for conducting strip searches.

As such, unlawful strip searches are potentially widespread.

Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police suggests five key recommendations for the NSW government.

It argues the law must be clearer about what, when and how police should conduct a strip search.

It advocates searches be conducted in accordance with child protection principles and strip searching of children in the field be prohibited unless permission is obtained through a court order.

It also recommends the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (NSW) be clarified to refuse police the right to search genitals or breasts and that examples of private places for strip searches be clearly defined. 

[Rachel Evans, along with fellow Socialist Alliance member Susan Price, were strip searched after attending a refugee rights rally in November 2017.]

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