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Rethinking strip searches by NSW Police

Police power Civil rights Australia

Strip searches require the removal of clothing without consent and enable inspections of the naked body that can be intrusive, humiliating and harmful. Strip searches are a significant violation of the person in circumstances where the person searched is also stripped of agency and control. Yet, strip searches are on the rise in New South Wales. Data put on the public record in 2019 shows that strip searches increased by 46.8 percent over four years and on average, found nothing 64 percent of the time.

Strip search practices raise major issues of police accountability. There is little public information about how and when police use strip searches, or the reasons why. At the time of the release of this report, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) is conducting an investigation into strip search practices by the NSW Police Force (NSW Police). The current Coronial Inquest into the deaths of six young people at music festivals in New South Wales is asking questions about the use of strip searches by police. In June 2019, an internal police analysis reportedly disclosed concerns about the unlawful conduct of strip searches and the lack of clarity around key legal provisions.

The report finds:

  • Strip searches were used 277 times in the 12 months to 30 November 2006 compared to 5483 in the 12 months to 30 June 2018, an almost twentyfold increase in less than 12 years.
  • Police suspicion that a person possesses prohibited drugs accounts for 91% of all recorded reasons why police conduct a strip search (2018-19 financial year).
  • Unlawful strip searches are widespread
  • Drug detection dogs may be propelling unnecessary strip searches
  • Only 30% of strip searches in the field in the 2017/18 financial year resulted in a criminal charge
  • Less than 16.5% of all charges arising from strip searches result in charges of drug supply
  • Almost 82% of all charges are for personal possession of a prohibited drug
  • Almost half (45%) of all recorded strip searches in the 2017/18 financial year were of young people aged 25 years and younger
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people accounted for 10% of all recorded strip searches in the field and 22% of all recorded strip searches in custody
  • The law is failing to protect children from being searched
  • Strip searches cause significant psycho-social harm

The report recommends:

  • The law must be clearer about what, when and how police should conduct a strip search
  • A strip search should be conducted in accordance with child protection principles
  • Strip searches of children in the field should be prohibited unless permission is obtained through a court order
  • The law should be clear that police cannot ever search genitals or breasts
  • Examples of “private places” for strip searches should be clearly defined
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