Strip searches of Indigenous kids by NSW Police “increasing”

NSW Police officers at Sydney Harbour. Photo: NSW Police Force/Facebook.

By ALEC SMART

New figures released by the Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) via freedom of information laws revealed that in the past year, NSW Police have continued to strip search dozens of children. This is despite public demands to cease and desist, and three official inquiries in late 2019 condemning the practice. 

The number of Indigenous children being strip searched is also on the rise.

The government data obtained by RLC revealed that of 3750 people strip searched by NSW Police over a 12 month period, 473 were Indigenous (including 150 women), of whom 96 were found to be under the age of 18 – one as young as 11. 

In the previous financial year, 492 Indigenous people were subject to strip searches. 

Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up just 3.3 per cent of the Australian population – and just 2.9 per cent of NSW’s total population – about 21 per cent of the youths stopped by NSW Police were of Indigenous descent.

13 per cent of children strip searched in 2018-19 were of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background. That figure rose to 20 per cent in 2019-20. 

RLC Police Accountability Practice solicitor Samantha Lee said the increased figures “paint a disturbing new picture of police strip-searches during Covid-19”.

“We already know that police are conducting strip searches on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at disproportionately high rates. But we now also know that this disparity is increasing,” she said. 

Strip searches “happening everywhere”

Lee wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald on 20 February 2019: “Strip searches are happening everywhere: at music festivals, on the street, in the back of paddy wagons, in cities and rural areas. The Aboriginal Legal Service has raised grave concerns that Aboriginal children as young as 10 in remote communities across NSW are being subjected to full-body strip searches in full view of members of the public.”

Two Sydney locations that featured prominently in the November 2020 strip search statistics were Centennial Park, with 85 searches, and Moore Park, with 76 (both areas also host music festivals and public events).

Moore Park borders the suburbs of Redfern and Waterloo, which are among Sydney’s top seven districts in terms of Indigenous make-up of the population. 

In the NSW regional city of Dubbo, Indigenous Australians featured in approximately two-thirds of police strip searches, despite making up less than 20 per cent of the population. 

Karly Warner, Chief Executive of NSW Aboriginal Legal Service, told The Guardian on 2 November 2020, “Forcing a child to remove their clothes is deeply intrusive, disempowering and humiliating, and especially for Aboriginal people who have too often been targets of discrimination and over-policing. 

“The excessive use of strip searching is causing extreme emotional and psychological harm … It is unjust, it violates children’s rights, and it undermines the relationship that police have with children.” 

Thousands of women and girls strip searched

Freedom of Information documents obtained in October 2019 by RLC revealed that in the preceding three years, NSW Police conducted 3,919 strip searches on women and girls.

Young women aged 25 and under accounted for almost half the searches, while the oldest woman was 72-years-old. 

In only 28 per cent of the strip searches of females was a “positive” indication by a drug detection dog used as a reason to undress them; the majority were motivated by officers’ suspicions.

The most shocking revelation was that NSW Police strip searched 122 girls under the age of 18, including two 12-year-olds, whom they made squat so they could part their buttock cheeks and peer beneath them. 

Lee revealed that NSW Police took RLC to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal to prevent publication of their intrusive strip search procedures.

Class action

In February 2020, documents obtained by the NSW Greens under the freedom of information laws, revealed the NSW Police set a quota of 241,632 searches for the 2018-19 financial year (including strip searches) of which 238,923 in total were conducted.

NSW Police Minister David Elliott has conceded there might be some cases where NSW Police have breached their legal remit by performing unnecessary strip searches.

“Of course they haven’t always been used according to the standard operating procedures,” he accepted, “and anybody who feels that has been done erroneously has got some reply to that.” 

Elliott suggested people who felt they had been wrongly strip searched were entitled to file a legal complaint.

That will soon be put into effect. Slater and Gordon Lawyers have teamed up with RLC to prepare a class action lawsuit against NSW police for alleged “systemic” misuse of strip searches over the past six years.

In May 2020 Slater and Gordon Senior Associate Ebony Birchall told The Guardian, “People who have been subjected to unlawful and invasive searches by NSW Police have rights to seek redress. By grouping these claims into potential class actions, people can stand together and demand change.” 

“Happy” stripping

The number of strip searches in NSW has increased almost 20-fold in the past 12 years, from 277 in 2006, to a massive 5,483 in 2018, with an almost 50 per cent increase in strip searches between 2014-18. 

Almost 300 minors, including a 10-year-old, were strip-searched by NSW Police over a two-year period between the financial years 2016-18. 

On 6 November 2019, the NSW Police Minister infamously defended his force’s actions with the much-ridiculed admission that he wouldn’t object to his two boys undergoing a naked inspection if “they were at risk of doing something wrong”, adding that parents would be “pretty happy” if their children were strip searched and found with drugs.

NSW Police Minister David Elliott addresses a press conference in Sydney on 22 October, 2020. Photo: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts.

The previous year, as Corrections Minister, Elliott admitted that nine months after receiving it, he had ‘not yet read’ a draft report summarising an independent review he commissioned in November 2016 into the solitary confinement of young people.

Fairfax Media revealed that children in Juvenile Justice were being incarcerated for up to 23 hours a day, alone, for weeks at a time. Elliott instead focused on the “good news” that the proportion of Aboriginal inmates in Juvenile Justice had fallen from 53 per cent under the previous Labor administration to 47 per cent under his.

‘Knife-wielding’ kids

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller has repeatedly defended his force’s use of strip searches, including the controversial targeting of minors, including girls under 18. 

In November 2019, Fuller claimed that a reduction in strip searching would lead to an increase in knife crime. 

Fuller cited as evidence that knife crime in London had accelerated after 2014 when the Metropolitan Police decreased their use of stop-and-search procedures. 

“You look at London,” Fuller told the Daily Telegraph. “They decrease their person searches by 20,000 because of a government policy position and knife crime went through the roof.”

Yet, Met Police stop-and-search operations were pat-down inspections of pockets and clothing, not strip searches.

Fuller did not reveal how many knives police had discovered in their strip searches of teenage girls. 

However, data collated by NSW Police revealed that suspects were rarely searched for knife possession. Of more than 20,000 searches conducted by police between 2015-16 and 2018-19, less than one per cent were undertaken to look for a knife or other concealed weapon.

Instead, the majority of police inspections were undertaken to check for illegal drugs.

Festival feels

A September 2019 coronial inquest into the MDMA-related (‘ecstasy’) deaths of six young people at music festivals between Dec 2017 and Jan 2019 resulted in a plea for an end to intrusive body inspections and police drug detection dogs at these events.

However, at its November 2019 conclusion, the recommendations put forth by Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame were dismissed by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. Grahame also revealed that NSW police had sought to stop her investigating strip searches.

Her recommendations for policing major music festivals included: scrapping drug-sniffer dogs, the overhaul of strip searches, and the introduction of pill testing (toxicity tests for ecstasy and other stimulants). 

The Berejiklian Government’s rejection of pill testing goes against the position of the Australian Medical Association, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, and former Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer.

A study published in May 2019 by RMIT University criminology researcher Dr Peta Malins explained why police drug detection officers consistently fail to detect or deter drug taking at festivals, thus rendering their searches irrelevant.

Festival-goers intent on getting high are “preloading” before entering the music arena. The stimulants are consumed and already affecting them as they walk past the sniffer dogs, which are unable to scent the drugs.

In October 2019, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) opened an investigation into whether NSW Police engaged in “serious misconduct” during their allegedly unlawful strip search of a 16-year-old girl at the July 2018 Splendour in the Grass music festival near Byron Bay.

Crowds at a previous Splendour in the Grass. File photo.

The inquiry heard the girl was marched into a marquee by a police officer after a drug detection dog indicated her a suspect while she stood in the entrance queue to the festival. 

After her phone was confiscated, she was subjected to a naked personal examination by a female police officer 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 [the police officer] 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.” 

No drugs, weapons or illegal substances were found on the girl.

The LECC inquiry learned that 143 strip-searches were carried out at Splendour in the Grass, seven of which were performed on children. Only one suspect was found to have drugs — a valium tablet. 

A senior constable, identity withheld, who performed 19 of the 143 strip searches over two days, admitted to the inquiry that they were unlawful. 

Some of the festival’s strip searches occurred even after the detained persons told NSW Police officers they were in violation of laws, including children who were refused their requests for parents or guardians to be present while they were undressed.

Berejiklian halts inquiry 

The LECC oversaw another inquiry in December 2019 into claims officers illegally strip searched minors at the Lost City under-18s music festival in Olympic Park earlier that year. 

All 10,000 attendees at the alcohol-free event were required to produce identification at the entrance showing they were under 18.

There were 30 recorded strip searches of children at the youth-only event: three girls and 27 boys. 25 of the 30 recorded searches were conducted without a parent or guardian present. One 13-year-old girl was strip-searched in the presence of a volunteer from a support network for youths, who was herself only 17. 

The inquiry also heard NSW Police arranged for two State Emergency Service (SES) volunteers to act as supportive adults when children were strip searched – complying with a legal requirement that an independent observer is present during the inspection. 

However, a detective chief inspector who arranged the SES presence at the youth festival did not require them to have passed Working With Children Checks, thus compromising their integrity.

When Michael Adams, QC, LECC chief commissioner, inquired why SES volunteers were thought suitable as legal support despite not having valid Working With Children authorisation, a senior NSW Police officer replied it was because they belonged to a “very reputable organisation.”

“Yes, but it’s not part of their ordinary duties to watch naked young people be searched by police,” Adams countered.

No drugs were found in any of the strip searches examined by the LECC, including those of three teenage boys, one of whom alleged an officer groped his genitals without wearing protective gloves.

The inquiry was cut short after NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian sacked Adams in a move that was widely interpreted as a tactic to stymie the probe. The LECC, which had scheduled more public hearings in January and February 2020 into the psychological impacts of strip searching minors, was forced to abandon the process and the inquiry was halted.

Less than a fortnight before Adams’ dismissal, he drew the wrath of the NSW Police Association after informing a parliamentary inquiry that he believed NSW Police was tainted with “significant corruption”, alleging that criminal motorcycle gangs “could not be the major manufacturers of methamphetamine in NSW” without police collusion.

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