UNSW Report: Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police

‘Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police’  is a research report commissioned by Redfern Legal Centre and prepared by Dr Michael Grewcock and Dr Vicki Sentas from the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney).

The report makes key recommendations to change strip-search legislation in New South Wales to ensure better safeguards for members of the public and improved guidance for police.

A first of its kind in Australia, the report looks at the operation of strip-search laws in New South Wales and across the country, exploring concerns around safeguards and transparency, and highlighting examples of best practice and opportunities for law reform.

A strip search is the most invasive form of personal search available to police without a court order,” Rerpot co-author Dr Sentas says. “Yet over the past decade we have seen the number of strip searches continue to rise. Our findings reveal such searches are doing little to tackle serious drug crime.”

Dr Sentas says the lack of publicly available data on strip searches, and on the exercise of police powers more broadly, is a major barrier to public accountability.  “NSW Police are able to record and release comprehensive data on the use of strip searches, and it is in the public interest that they do so immediately, as a first step to achieving greater transparency and guidance to protect the public,” she says.

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