Police in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, have come under fire for the alleged illegal use of strip searches on the state’s Indigenous population after the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT revealed children in rural settings were being subject to strip searches without the supervision of a guardian, and Sydney Criminal Lawyers released a video of an Indigenous elder being strip searched in public in Sydney. A 2019 Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police report released by the University of New South Wales also indicated that a disproportionate use of strip searches were being used to intimidate and control Indigenous peoples.
According to NSW Police data published within the UNSW report, between 2016 and 2019 approximately ten percent of documented strip searches conducted in the field were on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who also account for 22 percent of searches conducted in police stations.
CEO of Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT), Karly Warner, told the SBS in November 2019 real figures were likely to be higher as a result of underreporting: “We say the actual true number of strip-searches that are happening, especially within communities across NSW, is vastly underrepresented in these figures. This is such an invasive, degrading and humiliating process, especially for Aboriginal girls and boys who are often the targets of over-policing, child removals, and it’s unacceptable.”
Under the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (LEPRA), unless deemed necessary for the safety of the person or to prevent the destruction of evidence, it is illegal for police to conduct strip searches on anyone between the ages of ten and 18 without a parent, guardian, or person – who is not a police officer who is capable of representing the interest of the person being searched -present. Strip searches of children under the age of ten are illegal. Legally, police officers must also, as far as is reasonably practicable, conduct strip searches in a private area that is out of the view of a person of the opposite sex to the person being searched, refrain from examining a person’s body by touch, and involve only the level of visual inspection deemed necessary.
In the video released on Sydney Criminal Lawyers’ website, recorded by a passer-by, an Indigenous man is seen being manhandled while handcuffed in his underwear by a male police officer in plain clothes in front of a book shop on Glebe Point Road. A female police officer in plain clothes is assisting the male officer with the search, while the Indigenous man is in plain sight of onlookers walking by. At one stage when the Indigenous man refuses to sit down, the male police officer forcibly pulls the man to the ground, causing him to hit his head on an electrical transformer box on the way down. During the search, the male police officer finds a box of syringes in the man’s possession, which the man claims he got from the hospital for free – a practice that is legal under the NSW Needle and Syringe Program. Eventually, the Indigenous man is allowed to get dressed, given a move-on direction and let go, but only after waiting for another police officer to arrive at the scene with a key to uncuff the man.
When asked whether or not the aforementioned strip search went against the requirements set out under LEPRA, and if the officers responsible for the search had been reprimanded for their actions, a spokesperson for the NSW Police Force declined to comment on the matter specifically and instead released the following statements:
“A strip search can only be undertaken when a police officer has the state of mind required by LEPRA. The legislation contains safeguards to preserve the privacy and dignity of members of the public.”
“There are additional safeguards for children and vulnerable people with which police must comply. Officers are trained to deal with the public in a respectful and empathetic manner, and to be aware of potential cultural sensitivities.”
The Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) is currently investigating the use of power by NSW Police in the administration of strip searches under LEPRA after receiving a number of complaints and anecdotal information from a variety of community organizations that suggest a potential abuse of power. On their website the LECC states that they intend to examine whether the training of police officers is sufficient enough to ensure that all police officers conduct searches in accordance with the law.
In a fundraiser currently being run by Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT to raise funds for the education of Aboriginal children on their rights in regard to strip searches, one of the goals under the initiative is to deploy police accountability training in communities. Ideally, an appraisal of police accountability and the adequacy of police training to deal with cultural sensitivity should be included in the LECC’s investigation into strip searches to decrease the risk of over-policing and address an already disproportionate incarceration rate of Indigenous Australians. The NSW Police Force has said they await the findings of the LECC review and will take a considered approach when the findings are delivered: “As an organization with extraordinary powers, we understand the need to closely monitor and regularly review the use of search powers to comply with the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (LEPRA).”