BY ALEC SMART
On Monday the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) opened an investigation into whether NSW Police engaged in “serious misconduct” during the allegedly unlawful strip-search of a 16-year-old girl at a music festival. The public inquiry heard that the girl was stopped after a drug-sniffing dog sat down next to her as she stood in the entrance queue to the 2018 Splendour in the Grass music festival near Byron Bay, on the NSW North Coast. This action indicates to officers that the person has scented positive for carrying illegal substances.
However, on this occasion the dog made a false detection – something surprisingly common. Yet despite her protestations, the girl – who cannot be named for legal reasons – was marched away by a female police officer who then confiscated the girl’s phone and subjected her to a ‘humiliating’ naked personal examination in the corner of a tent without a parent or guardian present – a legal requirement.
“I could not believe this was happening to me; I could not stop crying; I was completely humiliated,” the girl wrote in a statement read out to the inquiry. “I was wearing a panty liner… she asked me to remove it to look at it. She asked me to squat on the ground… I squatted down in front of her and she squatted down and looked underneath me.”
The inquiry learned that 512 personal searches occurred at the July 2018 event, in which Illegal items were found in 125 instances. 143 of those inspections were strip-searches; seven of them performed on children.
A senior constable, identity withheld for legal reasons, who performed 19 strip searches across two days, admitted to the inquiry that strip searches conducted at the festival were unlawful. Only one suspect was found to have drugs — a valium tablet.
In Dec 2014 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that invasive strip searches by police have increased by 32 per cent in NSW since 2009, with thousands of people stripped naked on the basis of sniffer dogs incorrectly indicating they are carrying drugs.
Patrons attending music festivals and other public events report being coerced by police into taking all their clothes off and squatting down so they could be examined to confirm whether or not they were concealing drugs anywhere on their person, or within body cavities, despite drug-detection dog identifications being wrong the majority of the time.
And yet the NSW Police Force Code of Practice states that strip-searches should occur only if “the seriousness and urgency of the situation require” them.
A study published in May 2019 by RMIT University criminology researcher Peta Malins found police drug detection officers fail to deter drug-taking because festival-goers intent on getting high are “preloading” before entering the music arena. The stimulants are already in their systems as they walk past the sniffer dogs.