By JOHN MOYLE
Police across NSW are increasingly using strip searches incorrectly as they target young people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as they ramp up their war on low level drug possession.
In November 2018 an internal NSW Police report admitted that the force had been applying the power to strip search inconsistently and incorrectly, resulting in trauma and humiliation for many of those searched unlawfully or unsafely.
“In NSW Act 2002 dictates the circumstances under which a person may be searched and outlines the criteria that must be met,” NSW Police spokesperson said.
“If police want to search someone first of all they must have reasonable suspicion and request their consent,” Kent Park, senior solicitor, Sydney Criminal Lawyers said.
“The definition of reasonable suspicion is broad and a lot of people don’t understand that right.”
Mr Park said that reasonable suspicion may come down to the way that someone is dressed, having phones or even smoking a cigarette in a car.
A report by the Redfern Legal Centre and the UNSW released on the 22nd August said that while 91% of strip searches are carried out on suspicion of drug possession, just 27% find any illegal substances.
In NSW a strip search may be defined as a partial removal of outer clothing or a more intrusive searching such as squatting and coughing to check for secreted contraband.
A guidance note to NSW Police on personal searches says “Start your search at the top of the head using the crush method. Move down through the collar, back chest and belt areas. After the belt area, search the groin and backside using the hand as a knife edge and adopting a triangular pattern for the upper legs and groin and between the cheeks for the rear.”
Drug dogs deployed
Additionally, police are empowered to use dogs for drug detection in places such as in or outside pubs, near public transport, concert venues, dance parties and any public place in Kings Cross.
However, contrary to practice where an indication from a dog is often the sole reason for a strip search, NSW Police Standard Operating Procedure says that police can only rely on an indication from a drug detection dog if they otherwise have reasonable suspicion to conduct the search.
In the 2016 NSW budget then-premier Mike Baird allocated $15million for the Police Force Dog Unit.
About a month ago government contractor and Potts Point resident Libby C was walking home for work when she witnessed a strip search near the El Alamein Fountain in Kings Cross.
“I saw two large policemen searching a young girl and the police had taken her top off and she was left with an under top and was begging them to stop as they stood over her,” Libby C said.
“And this was happening less than 10 metres from the Kings Cross police station.”
NSW strip searches its citizens at a rate of 68 per 100,000, or 10 times the number of searches for Queensland.
In the year 2017 to 2018 a total of 5,451 strip searches were conducted, with 1,387 of those being on females.
In NSW the area with the highest number of strip searches in the same period was the dance party precinct of Olympic Park, with 524 searches.
The Sydney area including Haymarket and the Rocks totalled 406, while Surry Hills and Paddington showed that 204 strip searches conducted.
The numbers for Darlinghurst and Potts Point were 84 strip searches, which would seem a low number, especially when residents witness strip searches frequently.
Disproportionate Aboriginal searches
“In my work in relation to external organisations such as legal centres the most common issue on the streets is illegal strip searches,” Dr Eugene Schofield-Georgeson, vice president, NSW Council for Civil Liberties said.
“The most common complaint we get from people being drug searched is about the attitude and aggressive nature of the police.”
There is also the question of the disproportionate number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders being caught in the Police web.
Of the total of 5,451 searches in 2017 to 2018 535 were of ATSI people.
The Aboriginal Legal Service did not respond to numerous requests for comment for this article.
In June 2019 more than 50 legal organisations signed an open letter calling for reform to NSW strip-search laws.
NSW Greens MP and the party’s spokesperson on drug law reform Cate Faehrmann said in a statement “Strip searches unfairly target younger people going out or using public transport while the evidence is that most drug consumption takes place in the privacy of people’s homes.
“A huge number of people choose to use drugs recreationally, regardless of whether they are legal or not and that is not going to change regardless of how hard police clamp down.”