In full view of the staff inside, a 22-year-old woman was strip-searched in front of a shop in broad daylight, an act indicative of the problem and the mindset of the NSW police.
Twenty-two-year old Teleaha Bower was with her partner last month, when she was approached by two undercover male police officers outside a pawn shop in St Mary’s and told she would be strip-searched.
She says the officers claimed there had been a break-in nearby and suspected her involvement in the offence.
She says the officers emptied the entire contents of her handbag onto the ground, then forced her to face the shop’s front window, in full view of a man inside, and told to lift her clothing to reveal her torso and upper body.
She told the officers that she wanted to contact her father, but says they refused, then confiscated her phone.
“The worst part was it was two male police officers and they could just do it anywhere”, she told the media.
Figures obtained by The Redfern Legal Centre show that 122 females under the age of 18 have been subjected to the degrading process of a strip-search recently.
And the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) has heard of the humiliation and fear experienced by a 16-year old girl as she was illegally strip searched upon entering the Splendour in the Grass Music Festival in Byron Bay last year.
Reports of illegal searches
There have been reports of police partially strip searching a 13-year old boy in public, randomly strip searching female protesters, and subjecting a disproportionately high number of Aboriginal youths to the procedure.
Earlier this month the Sniff Off Facebook page, which is operated by the Greens Party had images of police strip searching a train commuter at a station in Sydney without a proper privacy screen.
There have even been reports of police officers strip-searching a toddler – an act that is prohibited under section 34 of the LEPRA which stipulates that “ A strip search must not be conducted on a person who is under the age of 10 years.”
The police watchdog has insufficient funding and no disciplinary power
But a matter of significant concern is that the LECC is so under-resourced in our state that it is only able to properly investigate around 2% of the thousands of complaints against police referred to it.
What’s more, the organisation does not have power to discipline police officers; it can only make recommendations for action to be taken. And where it finds that an officer engaged in serious misconduct – including crime or corruption – the body will normally refer matters back to the police to consider disciplinary action against their own officers – a situation where police are essentially ‘policing themselves’ without adequate oversight or accountability.
Greens MLC, David Shoebridge, is a vocal opponent of police abusing strip search powers.
Mr Shoebridge recently told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that “the bulk of NSW police who are forcing people to undergo strip searches don’t understand the law, and are regularly breaching it”, stating “strip searches are effectively a form of state-sanctioned sexual assault”.
The dramatic increase in strip searches
Data shows that ‘field’ strip searches in New South Wales – which are searches other than those conducted in police stations – increased by almost 47% over just four years. And on average, the searches turned up nothing illegal more than 60% of the time.
The procedure is now firmly in the spotlight, and is the subject of inquiry by the LECC.
There is also vocal opposition to the increase in strip searches by the Greens Party, The Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) and the general public who are becoming increasingly aware that they – or members of their family – are increasingly likely to face the humiliating procedure at the hands of police officers.
The Greens and RLC have called for police to be brought to account for their widespread illegal conduct as well as an overhaul of strip search laws generally, to make it crystal clear that subjecting people to such searches without a proper basis will have real consequences.