Police slammed over ‘humiliating’ manual
A newly updated "personal search manual" that encourages police to examine people's genitals and rectums during a stripsearch has been slammed by legal experts.
The freshly updated NSW Police Person Search Manual, publicly released this month, encourages police to make people "squat", "lift testicles", "lift breasts" and "part buttock cheeks" while being strip searched.
The new manual, seen by news.com.au, has been issued amid increasing pressure on police to wind back their use of drug dogs and stripsearches.
Samantha Lee, head of police accountability at Redfern Legal Centre, said the manual was legally confusing and encouraged potentially unlawful practices.
"The manual prescribes actions that arguably go beyond the powers of LEPRA (Law Enforcement Powers and Responsibilities Act), such as the authority to direct a person to squat and cough, the parting of buttock cheeks, turning a person's body to face a different directions and using a stripsearch as a first port of call," she said.
Ms Lee said the manual should be amended so that stripsearches were only conducted in rare circumstances.
"The legislation clearly states that a strip search is a visual inspection of the body. Parliament did not intend that a stripsearch to occur via use of force," she said.
"A stripsearch can already cause tremendous trauma, adding any form of additional violence into that equation could have horrendous consequences. Police should also be fully informed that use of force could constitute assault and battery if done without a solid legal basis.
"Although, the manual offers some clarity on how police should interpret the limits and extent of the power to stripsearch, it still fails to ensure that these highly invasive searches occur only in the most exceptional of circumstances. This is why legislative change is so urgently needed."
However, Ms Lee did commend the release of the manual as an important step towards improved transparency by police.
Greens MP David Shoebridge, who has long campaigned against stripsearches in NSW, said the practice was "humiliating" and "an appalling abuse of police power".
"Nowhere does the law give police the power to force people who are naked to squat, spread their buttocks, move their genitals or otherwise demean themselves," he said.
"If police are making these demands while they are stripsearching people then I would encourage people to refuse to comply. It is an appalling abuse of police power.
"While police have the power to conduct a search if they have reasonable suspicion that someone has committed a crime that does not give them the right to do whatever they choose.
"Police don't have the power to push someone's clothing up to expose their body during an ordinary search. By making that claim this manual blurs the distinction between an ordinary search and stripsearch.
"Police can direct people to shake their hair and open their mouth, but only when they are being searched with their clothes on. They are not allowed to make these demands of people when they are naked."
Under law, stripsearches are only meant to be conducted as a last resort in serious circumstances, but experts say the invasive practice has become far more commonplace in recent years.
The Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police report, commissioned by Redfern Legal Centre (RLC), revealed the number of stripsearches conducted in NSW has increased almost 20-fold over the past 12 years, from 277 times in the 12 months to November 30, 2006, to 5483 in 2018.
It also found that police suspicion that a person possesses prohibited drugs accounts for 91 per cent of all recorded reasons as to why they conduct a stripsearch, yet only 30 per cent of such searches resulted in a criminal charge.
More than 80 per cent of these were for personal possession rather than intent to supply.
"The stripsearch means being stripped by total strangers, often forced to contort into unusual positions - to bend over to squat and cough - and so on, in circumstances and conditions which are almost inevitably going to be humiliating and intimidating," report co-author Dr Michael Grewcock said.
"If they were being conducted in any other circumstance, if you take sensitive police powers out of the question, it would be … quite a serious assault."
The report also found that unlawful stripsearches were widespread. Young people - aged 25 and under - made up almost half of all recorded searches.
NSW Police said in a statement: "NSWPF rejects the assertion that our officers are working outside the parameters of the legislation.
"LEPRA allows a police officer to undertake a strip search where they suspect on reasonable grounds that it is necessary for the purposes of the search. The strip search can be conducted in the field where the seriousness and urgency of the circumstances necessitate a strip search in the field. "