12:43, November 01 69 0 theguardian.com

2020-11-01 12:43:04
NSW police strip-searched 96 children in past year, some as young as 11

Police in New South Wales have continued to strip-search dozens of children, some as young as 11, despite widespread condemnation of the controversial practice.

New data obtained by the Redfern Legal Centre via state freedom of information laws revealed that in the past year, NSW police conducted 96 strip-searches on children.

A disproportionate number of those – about 21% – were Indigenous, including one case in which an 11-year-old was strip-searched by police. The new data also revealed Indigenous Australians of all ages continue to be disproportionately subjected to strip searches by police.

The proportion of searches carried out on Indigenous Australians of all ages rose from 9% to 13% between 2018-19 and 2019-20. In Dubbo, a regional city in the state’s west, Indigenous Australians made up two-thirds of the total number of strip-searches carried out despite only representing about 20% of the population.

The new figures come after Guardian Australia previously revealed police in the state had performed hundreds of searches on girls and boys over a number of years.

Karly Warner, the chief executive of the NSW Aboriginal Legal Service, told Guardian Australia the organisation was “incredibly disturbed” that police have “continued their strip searching of children”.

“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 overpolicing,” she said.

“The excessive use of strip-searching is causing extreme emotional and psychological harm … An unclothed and traumatic early encounter with police is something that children will have to deal with long after they’re allowed to put their clothes back on.

“It is unjust, it violates children’s rights, and it undermines the relationship that police have with children.”

Together with law firm Slater and Gordon, the Redfern Legal Centre is currently investigating a possible class action lawsuit against NSW police over the alleged “systemic” misuse of strip searches in the past six years.

Sam Lee, the centre’s police powers solicitor, said the latest 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.

The total number of strip-searches conducted in NSW decreased by about 30% between 2018-19 and 2019-20, but much of that decline appeared to be driven by a reduction in the use of the practice at large music festivals. At key music festival locations including Sydney Olympic Park and Moore Park the number of strip searches declined by 78% and 64% respectively.

At the same time, the proportion of Indigenous people subjected to strip searches increased from 9% to 13%, despite making up only 3.4% of the state’s population.

The disparity was more striking in some parts of the state. In Dubbo, 66% of all strip searches carried out in 2019-20 were on Indigenous Australians. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows the city’s Indigenous population is about 20%.

That over-representation was also replicated in some parts of Sydney. In Surry Hills, a suburb near the city’s CBD, Indigenous people made up 14% of the total number of people strip searched. In Liverpool in the city’s west, it was 10%.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should not have to live in fear of being strip searched by police. This harmful practice is eroding good community relations and feeds into distrust and fear of the police,” Lee said.

Police in NSW have been repeatedly criticised over the use of strip searches. Earlier this year, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission released two separate tranches of investigations into individual searches which were found to have been unlawful.

The reports followed a lengthy public inquiry into the use of the policing tactic, which heard evidence of a number of potentially illegal strip searches. Among them include a 16-year-old girl who was left fearful and in tears after she was forced to strip naked in front of police at the Splendour in the Grass Festival in Byron Bay.

In a statement, a NSW police spokeswoman said the force would take a “considered approach” when the final report from that investigation is released later this year, and pointed to the overall reduction in strip searches and a year-on-year decline in the number of searches of children from 175 to 96.

“A number of changes to policies, processes and training – including a new Person Search Manual, updated verification and auditing processes, and music festival procedures – have already been implemented, which have all been subject to monitoring by LECC,” the spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman also defended the seven searches conducted on children aged between 11 and 14, saying they had been “reviewed and deemed to comply with policy and legislative requirements”.

But Vicki Sentas, a lecturer at the University of NSW – who last year co-authored a report which found that the use of drug dogs was helping to fuel massive increases in strip-searches – said the “differential policing” of Indigenous Australians revealed by the figures showed the need to reform the often-criticised legislation governing strip search powers.

“Police leadership appear to have responded to the public backlash against strip searches by sending the message for police to ease off on music festivals,” she said.

“None of the changes to police policy and training on strip searches have made a difference for how First Nations people are being policed and it’s only getting worse. At the very least, parliament needs to reform strip search laws to limit their use.”

The new figures also come during an unfolding diplomatic incident between Australia and Qatar after a number of women were subject to intimate medical examinations while transiting through Doha international airport. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, described the invasive treatment of the women as “unacceptable” and “appalling”.

Lee said the case should turn attention to Australia’s own search laws.

“The strip search stories out of Qatar are disturbing. But Australia also has some disturbing strip search stories and harmful laws,” she said.

“Although laws vary across jurisdictions, police in all states and territories have the power to strip search children between the ages of 10 and 18. A child as young as ten can be subjected to a full body strip search, and in some circumstances, without a parent [or] guardian present.”

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