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An inquiry into the NSW police’s strip search program has discovered that the threat of public humiliation is commonplace, and is used to garner compliance.
The NSW coronial inquiry into six drug-related deaths at music festivals heard testimony last week regarding a police officer who threatened to make a strip search “nice and slow”, unless the woman being ordered to take her clothes off, confessed to where her drugs were hidden.
The young woman recalled fighting back the tears as officers led her through the crowd on their way to make her disrobe at the December 2017 Knockout Circuz festival, after a drug detection dog had indicated that she was in possession of illegal drugs.
The female police officer conducting the search told the woman she’d drag the process out if she didn’t hand over the drugs, as the “dogs are never wrong”. But, like so many times before, the canine was mistaken, as the now 28-year-old woman didn’t have any illicit substances on her.
The festivalgoer was ordered to take off her shirt and bra. When she tried to cover her breasts, she was made to remove her hands. The officer ordered the woman to remove her shorts and underwear and then told her to repeatedly squat on the ground and cough.
The officer’s assertion that she was going to make the strip search process “nice and slow” was an acknowledgement of how humiliating and traumatic the procedure is. And this is not the first time an officer has weaponised the practice as a means to intimidate and punish.
Traumatic, on the rise and ad hoc
“These kinds of actions by police are not only appalling, but they’re very likely unlawful,” said NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge. “What we see across the state is an unsupervised, ad hoc use of strip searches: sometimes for legitimate purposes, but, quite often, for intimidation.”
“And it’s that ad hoc, unsupervised nature that should be the focus of legislative reform,” he continued, “which would greatly reduce the number of strip searches and put some integrity back into the system.”
Over the last half-decade, strip searches have gone from being a practice used on rare occasions that warrant it, to a routine procedure. Indeed, Shoebridge released figures late last year that revealed over the four year period ending June 2018, strip search use increased by 47 per cent.
The Redfern Legal Centre launched the Safe and Sound campaign last December. It calls for an overhaul of strip-search laws, so they’re clearer and more defined. The RLC has also called on the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) to investigate the officer mentioned at the inquest.
The state’s sole police oversight body, the LECC launched an investigation into NSW police use of strip searches in October last year. This followed further revelations that strip searches carried out following drug dog indications had doubled from 590 in 2016 to 1,124 in 2017.
Turning up the humiliation
The police protocols applying to strip searches are set out in part 4 division 4 of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002. And despite officers regularly getting those being strip-searched to squat and cough, this procedure appears nowhere in the legislation.
“I’ve had multiple complaints to my office, largely from young people, especially young women, who’ve described this kind of humiliating process, where police instruct a naked disempowered person to squat and cough in front of them,” Mr Shoebridge remarked.
The Greens justice spokesperson added that as there are “no statutory powers” that permit this “humiliating and undignified process”, it’s “likely unlawful”. And he stressed that he’d recommend people don’t comply with the squat and cough direction.
“But, of course, if you are by yourself and you are naked and you are disempowered and surrounded by uniformed police, your ability to resist is often very modest indeed,” Mr Shoebridge told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
The incident that arose at the coronial inquest is not the only instance where it’s been shown that police have been using strip search procedures in a way that intimidates or punishes the person being subjected to it.
The NSW District Court awarded a Sydney man over $112,000 last year, after it was shown police failed to follow protocols, which included strip-searching him when it was no longer suspected he possessed any drugs and it was acknowledged that it caused him “hurt and embarrassment”.
And in November 2017, two protesters at a Sydney rally for refugees on Manus Island were picked up by police after the demonstration and taken to Newtown police station, where they were strip-searched. One of the two women said she was left feeling it was a means of intimidating them.
Highly flawed, warrantless searches
“The dogs are never wrong, so tell me where the drugs are” is what the police officer reportedly said to the young woman, as she threatened to drag out the strip search, so as to maximise humiliation unless the non-existent drugs were produced.
The laughable aspect of this is that it’s long been shown that NSW drug dogs get it wrong the overwhelming majority of the time. Figures going back to the end of last decade show that when a sniffer dog makes a positive indication no drugs are found two-thirds to three-quarters of the time.
“That’s a police officer who is either grossly misinformed or deliberately lying. And neither of those conclusions are attractive,” Mr Shoebridge said in regard to the officer’s assertion that drug dogs are accurate. “The dogs are notoriously unreliable. That’s a police officer that needs to be disciplined.”
Sowing the seeds of discord
Another aspect of the misuse of strip searches is that it’s changing the nature of policing in the community. The function of the police is supposed to be around community safety and preventing crime, not intimidating members of the public, especially the innocent.
According to Shoebridge, the increased and abusive use of strip searches is destroying the relationship police have with the wider community, especially with the current younger generation that is bearing the brunt of these actions when they’re out trying to have a good time.
“There is no question that strip search powers are being abused. There is no question that we need significant statutory reform,” Mr Shoebridge concluded. And there is no question that strip search authorisation “should require more than the opinion of just one police officer on the ground”.