Naked strip search of 16-year-old girl 'unlawful', NSW watchdog finds

A file image from the Splendour in the Grass music festival in 2018. Source: Facebook/Splendour in the Grass

Police officers who conducted strip searches of children hadn't been properly trained and didn't understand the law on what they were doing, a series of landmark watchdog reports has found.

The conduct of NSW Police officers in carrying out strip searches of teenagers at music festivals has been found to be unlawful in a series of landmark reports by the NSW Law Enforcement Conduct Commission.

The reports also criticised the use of police discretion in finding appropriate grounds to justify a strip search; and then the subsequent conduct of the strip search as it applies to people under the age of 18. 

One officer strip searching men and boys at a popular Byron Bay festival in New South Wales had done five minutes' training on the topic in the past 14 years, a watchdog says. 

The NSW Law Enforcement Conduct Commission said police couldn't justify ordering people to strip naked on a general belief that some music festival patrons would conceal drugs.

It also found the reliance on searching people based on their reactions to sniffer dogs was "problematic".

In each of the five investigations concerning searches of five children and two adults, no drugs were found.

In one case, police at Byron Bay's Splendour in the Grass music festival in 2018 unlawfully strip searched a 16-year-old girl.

She was first seen by a male senior constable who had had spent five minutes doing mandatory continuing police education on strip searches in the 14 years since leaving the police academy.

A female senior constable then searched the girl in a tent which could not be completely closed - one of six reasons the search was unlawful.

The commission found the officers also made no attempt to contact a parent, guardian or support person as required and failed to appropriately hold reasonable suspicion she was concealing drugs.

6 November 2019: NSW police minister responds to concerns over the rate of strip searches of young girls
6 November 2019: NSW police minister responds to concerns over the rate of strip searches of young girls

The only indication the girl had drugs was a sniffer dog sitting next to her as she entered the festival.

She was unreasonably ordered to completely strip naked.

"Even if it were accepted that (the female officer) had reasonable grounds to believe that the removal of all clothing was necessary, (the girl's) youth was a discrete basis on which she should have, for example, been given back her jacket whilst the search of her lower body was performed," the report said.

An analysis of the officers' notes from other searches that day found a number of mistakes.

"This analysis suggests that the total number of strip searches may have been higher than that recorded in the (police database)," the report said.

The male officer told a LECC hearing he searched 19 people at the 2018 festival and strip searched every person who was subject to a positive drug indication by a sniffer dog.

He found only one person with Valium.

In another report, police illegally searched a 15-year-old boy after drug detection dog sniffed his pocket at an under-18 music festival in Sydney in 2019.

The boy was not cautioned before police ordered him into a tent and ordered him to pull down his pants.

Police unreasonably considered the boy's enlarged pupils and being "shaky" as signs of drug-affectedness when they could be due to nerves and the lower lighting in the tent, the commission found.

The LECC said it is satisfied the NSW Police Force was taking measures to address the commission's concerns about strip searching.

A final report on strip searching is expected to be delivered by the commission later in 2020.

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