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Police officers in NSW conducted almost 5,500 strip searches outside of police stations in one year, and two thirds of those searches found nothing, a scathing new report can reveal.

The report, Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police, was commissioned by Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) and will be released to the public this morning at a press conference in Sydney.

The authors – lawyers and academics from the University of NSW – obtained data from NSW Police records under freedom of information laws, revealing that strip searches were used 277 times “in the field” (outside police custody or in stations) in the 12 months to 30 November 2006. This number jumped to 5,483 in the 12 months to 30 June 2018 – representing an almost 20-fold increase in less than 12 years.

Lawyer Samantha Lee, a co-author of the report and the head of RLC’s police accountability practice, said she began looking into the numbers when she noticed a rise in anecdotal reports from clients at RLC who said they had been strip searched by police.

“I started to see a pattern among clients reporting that they had been strip searched. Many of these clients were quite young, and the stories they told of being strip searched were extremely traumatic,” she said. “When we delved into police records, we found that the numbers of strip searches had gone up quite significantly.”

In December 2018, NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge revealed data showing strip searches in NSW had increased by 47 per cent in four years to 2018. However, the RLC report found that this trend was not replicated nationally – roadside strip searches conducted in Queensland, for example, had declined from 457 in 2016 to 353 in 2018.

The RLC report found many searches in NSW were being conducted with dubious legal justification, and 64 per cent found nothing related to criminal offences.

“One young woman had been a victim of sexual assault and she was subjected to a full-body strip search at a music festival,” Lee said. “For her, that triggered extremely traumatic memories of the assault. It was incredibly invasive, and I think a demonstration of the fact that police are going beyond the boundaries of the law using strip searches; they should only be used as a last resort.

“One client was strip searched in the street, out in the open,” Lee continued.

“The Aboriginal Legal Service tells us that children as young as 10 years old are being stopped and strip-searched in regional towns.”

Young people and Indigenous Australians were disproportionately targeted, according to the report – with 45 per cent of all recorded strip searches targeting young people aged 25 and under, and 10 per cent of strip searches in the field involving Indigenous Australians, despite Indigenous Australians representing 3 per cent of the population.

Children as young as 10 years old are being stopped and strip-searched in regional towns.

– SAMANTHA LEE, Head of Redfern Legal Centre police accountability practice

The law surrounding strip searches is governed by the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (LEPRA), which Lee says is vague and outdated. Her report recommends that the law be amended to provide a clearer definition of a strip search, when police can conduct strip searches in the field and in police stations, and to explicitly require that strip searches not be undertaken if there is a less invasive alternative.

“When strip searches are conducted in the absence of legal justification, they are carried out by police for a range of non-legal purposes, including punishment and humiliation,” the report said.

The report also highlights that unlawful strip searches are “potentially widespread” in NSW. According to Lee, the “deeply humiliating” practices of removing a person’s clothes, asking them to squat, cough and bend over are strictly elements of a “cavity search” that are not to be used during a strip search in NSW.

“My reading of the law is that police are not allowed to conduct cavity searches in the field,” said Lee.

No data is publicly available on how many convictions resulted from strip searches in which drugs or dangerous weapons were found and the searched person was charged.

A coalition of more than 50 organisations and members of the legal profession, including former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery QC and former Chief Justice of the Family Court, Elizabeth Evatt AC, in June indicated their support for legislative change on the issue, signing an open letter to the NSW Police Minister to address the rise in police strip searches.

“The power to strip search is one that ought to be exercised in exceptional and serious circumstances only, consistent with international human rights standards and social policy goals such as harm reduction. However, the strip search experiences of those people brought to public attention through media reporting reveal urgent questions about the legality, fairness and harmful effects of strip searches in New South Wales,” said the report.

Read the report in full here.