'Humiliating and harmful process': Dramatic increase in NSW police strip searches

The number of strip searches is rising. Source: WireImage

University of NSW researchers say the number of strip searches in the state jumped to 5483 in the 12 months to mid-2018 compared with 277 at the end of 2006.

There's been a huge rise in the use of strip searches in NSW over the past decade but they aren't helping the police tackle serious drug crime, a new report suggests.

University of NSW researchers say the number of field strip searches in the state jumped to 5483 in 2017/18 compared with 277 between December 2005 and November 2006.

In the same time, strip searches in police custody in stations jumped from 6841 to 9381.

However in 2018/19 searches in custody dropped to 6827.

"Over the past decade we have seen the number of strip searches continue to rise (but) our findings reveal such searches are doing little to tackle serious drug crime," UNSW law academic Vicki Sentas said in a statement.

Dr Sentas is the co-author of the Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police report which will be released in Sydney on Thursday.

The report - commissioned Redfern Legal Centre - says more than 91 per cent of reasons given for police conducting strip searches in the field in 2018/19 was suspected possession of an illegal drug.

This reason also accounted for between 85 per cent and 89 per cent in the preceding three years.

In the four years between 2014/15 and 2017/18, searches in the field found nothing between 62.6 and 65.6 per cent of the time, the report says.

The report also says only 26.7 per cent of strip searches undertaken on suspicion of drug possession between 2016/17 and 2018/19 resulted in criminal charges for this reason.

The report found about 40 per cent of searches were conducted on those aged 25 years and under in 2016/17, rising to 45 per cent in 2017/18.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people accounted for between 22.1 and 23.1 per cent of people strip-searched in police stations between 2016/17 and 2018/19 and made up between 9.8 per cent and 10.8 per cent of searches in the field between 2016/17 and 2017/18.

RLC solicitor Samantha Lee says the rise in strip searches indicates the law is not being applied as it is intended, as a last resort.

"Strip searches are an invasive, humiliating and harmful process, and as such, should be only used in exceptional circumstances when no other alternative is available," Ms Lee said in a statement.

The report recommends the law be clearer about what, when and how police should conduct a strip search.

It also recommends the rule that "police cannot search a person's genitals or breasts during any personal search unless police consider it necessary" be clarified.

Report co-author Dr Michael Grewcock says the research suggests that police are using strip searches routinely "with little regard for the law and their own internal guidelines".

"We need greater transparency and accountability regarding these practices," Dr Grewcock said in a statement.

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