A suspicion that someone is concealing drugs in their body cavities is not enough to justify a strip search, the state’s police watchdog has said in its final report on the invasive practice.
The Law Enforcement Conduct Commission said the reason used by some officers during a recent inquiry had no “logical basis” as a strip search wouldn’t enable police to remove the drugs anyway.
“If the officer has a reasonable suspicion that a person has drugs secreted inside them and the casing for the drugs has, or could, burst, these safety concerns can only be addressed by taking the person to a hospital,” the commission said in its long-awaited findings, tabled to NSW Parliament on Tuesday.
The report follows a public inquiry into allegations of police illegally strip-searching young people at music festivals, including a 16-year-old girl at Splendour in the Grass in Byron Bay, and three boys, aged 15 to 17, at an under-age music festival at Sydney Olympic Park.
There was another investigation, among others, into unlawful strip searches of a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy in the street of a large regional town, and later in the vehicle dock of the local police station in November 2018.
According to the report, more than 8000 strip searches were conducted in the past financial year. In 46 per cent of those instances, something illicit was found.
The commission said the experience of being strip-searched could give rise to immediate and lasting trauma, and it made a list of recommendations, including clarifying the threshold of “seriousness and urgency” required to begin a strip search, saying NSW Police were “unable to particularise” the offences that fell within that term.
The commission said the ambiguity surrounding the extent of the police powers, including around instructing people to “squat and cough” during a search, needed to be clarified.
The LECC also recommended police make it clear to officers that general intelligence regarding the use of drugs at festivals wasn’t by itself sufficient to justify strip-searching an individual patron.
In a statement responding to the report, NSW Police said the force was committed to continuous improvement and had worked with the commission over the past three years to review and refine its search procedures.
“As acknowledged by LECC in its findings, the NSW Police Force has already made significant changes to policy documents, training requirements, and governance and review procedures,” the statement said.
Following questions to Police Minister David Elliott’s office, a NSW government spokesperson said the government would be carefully considering the findings and would respond to them in due course.
Green’s MLC David Shoebridge said the report identified just a part of the problem with policing drugs in NSW.
“There is a war on drugs that we are losing because it’s an unwinnable war. And part of the damage in that war on drugs is this routine humiliation of young people and particularly with strip searches,” Mr Shoebridge said.
A bitter dispute was sparked within the Coalition earlier this month over a proposal to reform drug possession laws as part of the government’s response to the ice inquiry.
Under the proposal, drug users would be handed penalty infringement notices the first three times they were caught with drugs, before facing criminal penalties on their fourth offence.
The government has since been forced to break its long-standing commitment to respond to the inquiry before 2021.
NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said on Monday the current response to illicit drugs was “not stopping drug abuse” and committed to delivering reform next year.
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