Illegal Strip Searches Are Sexual Assault, But Police Watchdog Has No Power to Discipline Offenders

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Strip search apology

The civil campaign against the dramatic increase in strip search use by NSW police started gaining traction in mid-2018, as it became apparent that Mick Fuller’s troops were engaging in what’s supposed to be a tactic of last resort like it’s routine procedure.

So, when police oversight body the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) stepped up to announce in October 2018 that it was opening an investigation into the NSW Police Force use of this invasive practice, many saw it as an opportunity for substantial change.

With reports and footage of unlawful strip searches repeatedly appearing online last year, NSW police simply dug in its feet. And when transcripts of LECC strip search hearings were released at the end of 2019, it only heightened public outrage about how the practice was being applied.

Then it was announced last January that LECC chief commissioner Michael Adams QC was being stood down, with it rumoured this was due to his focus on strip searches. And since his departure, LECC has released multiple strip search reports that reveal a watchdog with its teeth ripped out.

So, it should come as no surprise that the just released report into the strip search of two female protesters sees LECC – in its capacity of police internal inquiries monitor – prodding investigators to probe deeper, which results in some rather weak reprimands for substantial breaches of the law.

Investigating their own

Commencing in July 2017, LECC was established to streamline NSW police oversight, which had been handled by three different agencies. And while LECC is supposed to investigate police misconduct complaints, due to its underfunding, it often monitors police investigating these complaints.

Released on 21 July, the Arrest, Detention and Strip Searching of Two Female Protesters report details two internal police investigations into complaints made in relation to the arrest and subsequent strip search of two women protesting for refugee rights on 10 November 2017.

Two complaints were made in regard to the incident that occurred at Newtown Police Station. One was an internal complaint made by an on-duty officer, which set out that the officer in charge at the station ordered two junior officers to carry out inappropriate strip searches of the women.

The second complaint was made by a civilian and former barrister. And along with claiming that the women had been illegally strip searched as well, it also argued that they had been wrongfully arrested and unreasonable force had been used during their apprehension.

The investigation of this misconduct matter commenced earlier than the broader LECC strip search investigation and it carried on into that inquiry. And as the state police watchdog was not satisfied with the findings of the first police investigation, it pushed for a second internal inquiry.

Searched to intimidate

Socialist Alliance members

Rachel Evans and Susan Price had been attending a Refugee Action Coalition rally in Redfern on the night they were strip searched. Although the LECC report states these women can’t be identified, it’s since changed its position and permitted their naming.

By all accounts, the protest that night was a little hectic and traffic had been blocked. At one point, Evans was walking past a police van, when an officer grabbed her by the clothes and lifted her into the back of the vehicle.  And as Price tried to grab onto Evans, she was given the same treatment.

The pair were taken to Newtown station, without being told why they’d been arrested. And despite being aware that they hadn’t been searched earlier, the officer in charge ordered two junior female officers to strip search them – first Price, then Evans – in a room, which had the door left open.

The Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities Act) 2002 (NSW) (the LEPRA) contains NSW police search powers, which stipulate that strip searches should be carried out following a less invasive search, only when the removal of clothes is necessary and out of the view of any onlookers.

As Evans’ strip search was still underway, officers at the station heard from those in the field that the women should be released without charge, however the refugee rights protester was still subjected to the last two and a half minutes of her strip search despite being free to go.

And it was only at that point that an officer told Price they’d been arrested for breach of the peace.

A slap on the wrist

The initial NSW Police Force investigation resulted in a finding that no misconduct had occurred. So, in May 2018, the LECC pushed for a further investigation, which was carried out by Central Metropolitan Region investigators.

The second internal police investigation found that the arresting officer had indeed carried out unlawful arrests, although the force he used was not deemed excessive.

It was further established that the officer who’d ordered the strip searches had breached LEPRA protocols, although it was also determined that the two officers who’d actually conducted the searches hadn’t broken any laws.

Again, the LECC pushed for further deliberations, which resulted in the two junior officers being found to have carried out unlawful strip searches as well.

Both the officer that carried out the unlawful arrest and the one who ordered the illegal strip searches were punished, but only via the issuance of a warning notice and being required to undergo a face-to-face training session.

And it might be remembered that undergoing a strip search has been shown to result in ongoing trauma, and likened to a form of sexual assault.

“The report is a joke”

The NSW Police Force has since admitted it had been wrong in strip searching Evans and Price, and it issued the pair with a formal apology last September. However, Evans is none too impressed with the findings of the new report into the incident.

“The LECC report into the strip search of myself and Susan was insulting,” Evans told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “It was demeaning to us. And it shows LECC is not an independent body devoted to investigating police misconduct.”

“The strip search was a grotesque incident of police brutality against peaceful protesters,” she continued. “After they sexually assaulted us at Newtown Police Station, they let us walk with no charge.”

Evans points out that the report found that 40 percent of people taken to the station on the night of her strip search had to undergo the same ordeal. And she questions how this amount could lead researchers to conclude that there was “no policy of strip searching everyone brought into custody”.

A 2019 UNSW report found that since 2006, the use of strip searches by NSW police had increase twentyfold. While figures released by NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge found that over the four year period ending in June 2018, the NSW police use of strip searches had increased by 47 percent.

“We need to outlaw strip searches. We need compensation for all strip search victims. And we need an apology to all victims from the NSW government and NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller,” Evans concluded.

“We need a proper independent body to investigate strip searches, not this ridiculous excuse of a body: the LECC.”

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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