BY MICHAEL HITCH
If you’ve walked through Redfern and Central Stations recently you may have noticed a few subtle changes. Perhaps more police. Perhaps more sniffer dogs. But the most insidious of all may be the not-so-private “privacy screens” set-up by police for the purpose of strip-searches.
The Redfern Legal Centre and the “Safe and Sound” campaign are taking a head-on approach to excessive police power after presenting a panel discussion last week to provide insight to, and answer questions from, the local inner-city community.
The panel focussed on one question; “Does NSW have a strip-search problem?” The short answer is “Yes”.
Legal experts, political representatives and strip-search victims led the panel in a discussion of the details of strip-search laws, advice for those subjected to a strip-search and tips for complaining about police conduct.
“Safe and Sound” campaign
The discussion, facilitated by the CEO of Redfern Legal Centre, Joanna Shulman, consisted of the head of Redfern Legal Centre’s Police Accountability Practice Samantha Lee, Principal Solicitor at The Shopfront Youth Legal Centre Jane Sanders and Greens MP David Shoebridge.
Ms Lee kicked off the panel session by discussing the newly created “Safe and Sound” campaign’s purpose.
“We started the ‘Safe and Sound’ campaign back in November last year, and it was launched just before the festival season,” she said.
“The aim of the campaign is to try and change strip-search laws to provide better safeguards for members of the public, but also to provide better guidance for police about when and how to conduct a strip search.
“A lot of people who were strip-searched came into the clinic [Redfern Legal Centre] and as far as we were concerned, they had not been strip-searched according to law.
“We’d also realised that police had traumatised a number of our clients and we were concerned about the harm that was being created in the community through this policing practice.”
Ms Lee also discussed the impact of increased strip-search procedures on “vulnerable” communities and emphasised a need for a harm minimisation approach to drug-use.
“No doubt the Aboriginal community has been exposed to poor strip-searching practices for years, but this poor procedure is now touching wider communities and that’s helped to develop this conversation tonight – which will only benefit the most vulnerable communities out there in NSW.
“We’re not approaching this forum as a law and order debate; that debate is not winnable as far as I’m concerned. What we are approaching it from is a harm-minimisation debate, we want people to be safe and protected and for police to be approachable. This is the main aim of the campaign.”
Free tickets for the panel discussion resulted in nearly every chair being taken by people from “all walks of life”.
Pamphlets detailing strip-search laws, common strip-search procedures and when police are violating their power were also provided at the event.
The number of strip-searches has increased form 3,753 in 2014-2015 to 5,483 in 2017-2018 – a 46 per cent increase in strip-searches across four years according to statistics from David Shoebridge.
Mr Shoebridge also discussed the impacts of discretionary police powers, such as strip-searches, on Indigenous communities and discussed the data that he’d gathered from police regarding the success of their “no tolerance” approach to drug-possession and use.
“When we talk about any discretionary power we should acknowledge that the community that bears the brunt of it – whether it’s in Redfern or Campbelltown or Blacktown – is always first nations peoples,” he said.
“They wouldn’t tell us about what’s found. But they will give you data of things found in searches. We know in that 2014-15 period, nothing was found in over 2,400 people searched. That was about 65 per cent of the searches.
“Roll over to 2017-18, and there was just over just 3,400 people out of that 5,400 people who were initially searched, then taken somewhere and literally humiliated – strip-searched – 3,400 people who had nothing found on them. That’s almost 63 per cent.
“It’s worse than that because the most recent data we have from the end of last year shows that with 67. 5 per cent of the people who were strip-searched in the last six months of last year, nothing was found. These are searches that the police have said are necessary and urgent.
“If a strip-search does find something, it’s normally only a tiny amount of drugs. It has no noticeable effect, no provable effect on reducing drug supply, drug distribution or the price of drugs in NSW at all,” Mr Shoebridge said.
Surge of strip-searches
During questions, one audience member asked the panel what was causing this surge of strip-searches in NSW.
Ms Sanders said in response, “Even if there has not been an official policy change, police culture is very powerful. I’ve been around long enough to notice shifts in police culture and generally those shifts are not for the better.
“They can be subtle and they can appear to be not very significant at first. I think police culture has shifted in the last 20 years further and further away from any sort of accountability, sadly.
“They also seem to have really dug in their heels, emboldened by our Premier, about zero-tolerance to drugs. They don’t even pretend to give a shit about harm minimisation anymore. I don’t think they’re trying to sugar-coat things anymore.”