NSW Labor looks into whether children should be allowed to be strip searched

October 27, 2023
Music festivals are often where police undertake strip searches. Photo: Monkey Business Images/Canva

Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) released new figures on October 17 revealing how many children have been strip searched by NSW Police.

Using freedom of information laws, it found that, over 2 years to last June, 107 people aged from 10 to 17 years old, including 3 girls aged 12 and 6 girls aged 13 had been subjected to a strip search.

The number of girls who have been made to completely disrobe in front of two armed adults over the last 12 months has risen by 30%.

A day later NSW Premier Chris Minns defended the controversial NSW Police strip search protocols, arguing that other states do the same.

Meanwhile, Tara Moriarty, NSW’s agriculture minister speaking on behalf of the NSW Police Minister, told the Legislative Council last week that Yasmin Catley “is planning to meet with key stakeholders in the coming weeks to probe whether the policy settings in place are fit for purpose”.

Catley’s pledge to investigate NSW police use of strip searches was delivered during a debate over whether “subjecting children to strip searches is harmful”.

Labor MP Cameron Murphy spoke in the debate saying the current system was “broken”.

The truth is three-quarters of all strip searches do not result in any convictions for illegal drugs. The circumstances that could warrant 12-year-olds having to disrobe immediately are obscure and it is difficult to see why police are subjecting kids to a practice said to be akin to sexual assault.

Major support for child abuse

NSW Legalise Cannabis MLC Jeremy Buckingham called on NSW Labor “to ban child strip searches for suspected drug possession” on October 18.

Buckingham pointed to academic research saying that ordering kids to strip “may cause long-term harm”, that this practice   to be employed in special circumstances only had become routine and that a third of all searches don’t reach “privacy and dignity” standards.

“The fact that children are being strip searched on our streets in this day and age is absolutely appalling,” Buckingham said, adding that he could only imagine the impact of such treatment on his stepdaughter.

But this has been the reality in NSW. Despite the Ombudsman in 2006 having criticised the redundancy of using sniffer dogs, police have begun to accompany an unsuccessful pat down following a dog indication with a back-up strip down.

Most MPs voted down Buckingham’s bill to amend the Law Enforcement Act 2002 to ban youth from being strip searched in relation to drug possession offences.

Greens MLCs Abigail Boyd, Cate Faehrmann, Sue Higginson and Dr Amanda Cohn, along with Animal Justice Party MLC Emma Hurst and Liberal Democrat John Ruddick all supported the bill.

Writing its own law

Police has been resisting pressure to reform its use of strip searches and the laws surrounding the practice for about a decade.

But, as recent figures show, reliance on this traumatic and flawed procedure has been growing.

A 2019 RLC-commissioned University of NSW Law Faculty Rethinking Strip Searches report outlined that police had increased their use of strip searches twentyfold between 2006 to 2018.

Authors Dr Michael Grewcock and Dr Vicki Sentas found that, between 2017-2018, 30% of such searches led to charges being laid; 82% of which were for drug possession: this means the person had a small amount of an illicit substance for personal use.

Part 4, division 4 of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (LEPRA) contains laws that pertain to the NSW Police use of strip searches.

Section 31 of the LEPRA reveals that most strip searches are of a dubious nature: if they are not carried out at a police station, the officer must consider that “the seriousness and urgency of the circumstances” necessitate an immediate search. Personal drug possession does not tick this box.

The privacy and dignity provisions set out in section 32, which officers do not comply with in two-thirds of all searches, include no touching of the genital area, or breasts, that officers of the same sex must carry out the procedure and that the person must be informed about why the search is necessary.

Some rules laid out in section 33 of the LEPRA include no searching of body cavities or touching of the body, that the search is done in a private area, out of the sight of the public, and that people under 18 who are searched must have a parent, guardian or representative present.

Section 34 of the LEPRA states that no one under that age of 10 can be strip searched by officers.

However, under pressure in 2019, police released its person search manual, which revealed that although they don’t appear in the LEPRA, law enforcement is applying a few extra measures of its own.

The manual, which has since disappeared from the web, set out that officers were allowed to order a person to lift testicles, part buttock cheeks, spread fingers and toes, lift breasts, turn their body to face in a different direction and squat.

These measures were being complained about, especially squatting and coughing.

Akin to sexual assault

Renowned abolitionist Amanda George argued in a 1993 article that strip searches are akin to sexual assault by the state. She was referring to their use on women prisoners in  Victoria, but it is a practice that is being used across the country.

RMIT criminology and justice studies lecturer Dr Peta Malins told Sydney Criminal Lawyers in 2019 that her research  revealed that police use of strip searches retraumatises survivors of past sexual assaults and the procedure has a traumatising effect in general.

Around the same time as Malins made these remarks, police had just started using strip search screens at Central Station: commuters indicated by a sniffer dog could be taken behind the barrier and made to strip off.

Despite the mounting opposition, governments and police are rejecting suggestions that strip searching people to ascertain if they may have a tiny quantity of drugs is not right.

Remember when former Coalition police minister David Elliott said in 2019: “I’ve got young children, and if I thought the police felt they were at risk of doing something wrong I’d want them strip-searched”.

Catley is a Labor police minister, but it seems when it comes to law enforcement the differences between the major parties is next to zero.

[Paul Gregoire writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers where this article was first published.]

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