NSW government under scrutiny for strip searches, 'war on drugs'

NSW Police with a drug dog at Newtown Station on December 10. Photo: Sniff Off / Facebook

Protesters gathered outside Sydney Town Hall on December 13 to demand an end to the New South Wales authorities “war on drugs”. The action, called by Sniff Off, Students for Sensible Drug Policy Australia, the NSW Users and AIDS Association (NUAA) and Greens MLCs Cate Faehrmann and David Shoebridge, demanded the government end its drug dog program and strip searches and decriminalise personal drug use.

In the early 2000s, NSW became the first state in the country to introduce drug detection dogs for policing. Then-Labor Premier Bob Carr enacted the Police powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act 2001, which authorised police to use drug detection dogs.

Unfortunately for the authorities, the dogs failed in their task. The 2006 NSW Ombudsman's review of the Police Powers Act found that no drugs had been located in “almost three-quarters of searches following indications”. This figure raised questions about the “accuracy of drug detection dogs”. 

Yet successive Labor and Coalition governments were not deterred by such facts and allowed the practice to continue.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers’ Paul Gregoire reported that Shoebridge and the Sniff Off campaign had collected evidence to show that beween 2013 and early this year, NSW Police had conducted almost 2 million searches, including strip searches.

Sniffer dogs led to the deadly practice known as “pre-loading” — ingesting drugs quickly as sniffer dogs are spotted. Police often strip search the person the dog identifies.

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of police strip searches over the past 20 years.

The 2019 report Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police, by University of Law academics Dr Michael Grewcock and Dr Vicki Sentas, found that over 2017–18, 5483 strip searches were conducted on the streets and a further 9381 inside police stations. Figures of strip searches in prisons (both of those incarcerated and their visitors) are not available.

NSW Police have also conducted strip searches on 96 children as young as 11 years old, according to the Redfern Legal Centre (RLC). 

The police also target the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. Government data obtained by the RLC under freedom of information laws revealed that 13% of children strip searched in 2018 –19 were of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background. It said that figure rose to 20% over 2019–20.

People in NSW are subjected to high rates of sniffer dog intimidation and strip searches ostensibly because of a rise in crime. However, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research reports the opposite. “Over the past 10 years the incidence of break and enter, motor vehicle theft, robbery and serious non-domestic assault have fallen considerably in NSW,” it noted last year.

Under growing pressure from complainants, in September last year NSW Police released a Person Search Manual — a guide to conducting strip searches. It gave police the right to “instruct people to squat, lift their testicles or breasts, or part their buttock cheeks”.

It is easy to see how strip searching is now widely accepted as being a form of sexual assault. Even Michael Adams, a former commissioner to the NSW police watchdog, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), has publicly expressed concern about whether these guidelines are lawful.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison made it clear in October that he found it “unacceptable” that 13 Australian women had been strip searched at the Qatar airport. He said his government would “continue to take a very strident approach” in seeking answers and ensuring it would never be repeated.

He was talking about strip searches in Qatar, of course. The widespread practice of strip searching here should also stir Morrison into action.

In addition, police “hush money” means that the NSW government is spending millions on settling lawsuits from people who have taken NSW Police to court for misconduct and brutality. According to Sniff Off, NSW Police spent $113.5 million in the past 4 years.

This money could be better spent on harm reduction programs, such as pill testing and drug rehabilitation centres, expanding public healthcare and funding drug research.

The campaign for justice and compensation for the victims of the war on drugs is growing.

Shoebridge introduced an amendment to Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 on November 11, to: end routine strip searching of women prisoners; prohibit strip searches of children under 16 years old; and only permit strip searches of children aged 16 and 17 years in exceptional circumstances.

The LECC released its report into police strip search practices on December 15, and made 25 recommendations. It questioned the legality of forcing people to squat or move their genitals during a strip-search, said officers need to be retrained to ensure a “lawful strip search” and said there needs to be better record keeping on the number of searches being conducted.

Meanwhile, Redfern Legal Centre and Slater and Gordon are exploring a class action of victims of strip searches

[Rachel Evans is a strip search survivor and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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