November 2019

The Nation Reviewed

The strip-search state

By Fiona McGregor
Successful compensation cases haven’t curbed the prevalence of unlawful strip-searches by NSW Police

On September 9, Rachel Evans and Susan Price received an apology from New South Wales Police for being unlawfully strip-searched.

Almost two years earlier, on November 10, 2017, the long-time activists were protesting the detainment of refugees on Manus Island when they were taken in a paddy wagon to Newtown Police Station. It had been a small, peaceful demonstration outside Australian Technology Park at Eveleigh, near Redfern in inner-western Sydney, to coincide with a Tony Abbott fundraiser, yet police blocked any possible movement of the demonstrators into Redfern. “We got kettled, basically,” Evans says. “The coppers went on two sides of us and started to get really heavy. Then they grabbed us… People surrounded the paddy wagon saying, ‘Let them go, let them go.’ They slammed a guy up against the paddy wagon and started beating him. Another guy got taken to hospital and ended up in court for the alleged crime of touching Tony Abbott’s sister’s jacket, which was later found to be untrue.”

Evans and Price look like anyone else in a Glebe cafe on a sunny Saturday, with their faded denim, greying hair and faces clear of make-up. White women 44 and 51 years old do not fit the usual profile of those strip-searched. Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police, a recent report from University of New South Wales commissioned by Redfern Legal Centre, shows strip-searches disproportionately target Indigenous people and youths aged between 18 and 25.

Strip-searches have increased in the state by 46.8 per cent over the past four years. At music festivals, infield searches are now routine. There has been a tent at the entrance to the Mardi Gras party each year since at least 2015, and in March 2019, after the Coalition’s re-election, temporary booths appeared at Central Station.

“Neither of us were charged,” says Evans. “I spent no time at the front desk showing them ID. I got taken out of the van and straight into the cell where two women officers were. They got me to take my top off, then my bra. They made me turn around, then I saw the video camera. But the most shocking thing was when they asked me to take my pants off. I protested and said, ‘I want to see your policy, this is not on.’ Then they said, ‘We’ll bring someone else in,’ which I thought was a threat – I thought they meant they’d bring a man in.”

It was Price’s first arrest. “My experience was slightly different,” she says. “They did the half-and-half – you know, take your top off, then your bottom. Then they got me to squat. They told me it was part of their duty of care, as someone in their custody. So that to me says it’s routine. It leaves out the fundamental thing of ‘suspects on reasonable grounds’, that I might be carrying something of harm to myself or someone else … We had a group of friends out there asking about our welfare, and the officer at the desk would not confirm we were even in there. Once it was all over, we got led out the back through the car park. It was bizarre.”

“We were carrying placards and a megaphone,” says Evans. “I mean, it was obvious what we were doing, there’s no way we would have had sharps on us or anything.” An activist since the age of 16, Evans is a veteran of the frontline. Nearby Surry Hills police greet her by her first name – “They’re pretty cheeky.” But nothing prepared her for this experience. “The power imbalance in that situation is gobsmacking. You comply because you just want to get out of there. Also, at that time, there weren’t many stories of strip-searching in the media. We were in shock for a little while.”

Strip-searching a person without their consent is in breach of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act, which governs police. The “suspects on reasonable grounds” clause has been lambasted for its imprecision by a phalanx of legal experts, including Samantha Lee, Redfern Legal Centre’s police powers solicitor.

“They would have been ordered,” Evans says of the Newtown police. “They weren’t that high up.”

“From my point of view,” says Price, “if you can just decide as the arresting officer to strip-search someone, that’s outrageous.”

Evans and Price decided to write statements and send them to Greens state parliamentarian David Shoebridge. Resolution was slow. Despite the proceedings in Newtown Police Station being videoed, police said they had no record of the event. Evans and Price submitted a Government Information (Public Access) request but it was unsuccessful. Then the ABC did a story on strip-searching, for which Evans was interviewed; she was the only person who didn’t request her features be pixelated out.

At the end of 2018, due to a massive surge in young complainants who had been strip-searched, Redfern Legal Centre launched “Safe and Sound”, a campaign mostly targeted at youth to educate people about their rights.

Evans and Price lodged a statement of claim three months ago. Shortly after receiving it, in June, NSW Police were made to pay a man $112,000 compensation for unlawfully strip-searching him. Steven Attala, 53, was sitting on a wall in Darlinghurst at 3am texting when he was arrested.

An internal police investigation into the practice of strip-searching took place the same month, and the results were damning for the officers involved. The incident with Evans and Price was also reported to the police watchdog, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission.

The police offered Evans and Price an out-of-court settlement fairly quickly, for an amount that cannot be disclosed. They received their apology letter at a conference with police. It was not written by Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, but by the senior superintendent of Inner West Police Area Command, and given to them by a representative.

At the settlement conference, the attending police officer was “emphatically apologetic”, Evans says. “But we don’t know what happened to the officers that conducted the search.” When the women asked why they had been searched, the police told them there had been “a communication breakdown”. Evans and Price raised the issue of there having been no pat-down. The vague reply was that “police don’t like touching people – they worry about it”.

There are currently a number of settlements in the pipeline, primarily being handled by private lawyers. The UNSW report suggests the compensation money the state government is paying out will reduce the number of searches. Another precedent is the $370,000 awarded in 2016 to an Aboriginal family from the north-western NSW town of Bourke, after they were raided and strip-searched in 2008 in the presence of minors.

But so far civil payouts haven’t resulted in any changes to practice. “This is a government decision to harass, intimidate and assault mostly young and marginalised people,” Evans says.

“The culture from the top permeates all the way down,” says Price. “It takes a lot to undo all the legislation of the past … It’s systemic. The whole point of us taking action was that this never happens again to another person, and their letter even acknowledged that, claiming that changes had been put in place to ensure this.”

“Apologies are good,” says Evans. “But we want to see a reduction in strip-searches. We want an apology to all the victims – people who are younger, who are getting targeted, and who don’t have that confidence. We want an apology to them, as well as compensation.”

Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based author and performance artist. Her books include Suck My Toes and Strange Museums. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award.

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