• New South Wales Police badges are seen in Sydney, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. (AAP)Source: AAP
New figures show Indigenous people are significantly over-represented in data tracking NSW Police strip-searches, and solicitors from Redfern Legal Centre and the National Justice Project fear the reality of those numbers is much worse.
Shahni Wellington

17 Jun 2020 - 2:37 AM  UPDATED 17 Jun 2020 - 2:37 AM

It is feared that startling figures on strip-searches - obtained through a freedom of information request by Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) - may only be scratching the surface of the issue.

The RLC and lawfirm, Slater and Gordon, are pursuing a class action lawsuit against the New South Wales Police and were seeking clarity on how often the "humiliating" and "invasive" process was affecting Aboriginal people when they lodged the FoI.

Now RLC police powers solicitor, Samantha Lee, suspects the statistics are probably worse in reality.

“I think you could probably double those numbers that we have been provided,” Ms Lee told NITV News.

“What we have found out through the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) public hearing - which is the police watchdog - is that police are not always recording strip-searches and that police actually don't even know what a strip-search is under the law,” she said.

Early this year, an investigation by the LECC found wide-spread failures in the state's police force training, and deemed a search 'unlawful' in which a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy was forcibly made to squat by a sergeant.

Now, newly-obtained data detailing the demographics of people strip-searched between 2016 and 2018 by New South Wales police has found the practice is being carried out disproportionately on Aboriginal people.

Twelve per cent of strip-searches in the two year period were Indigenous people, even though they only make up a little more than three per cent of the state population.

It included one 10-year-old and two 11-year-olds.

Redfern Legal Centre is concerned that unlawful searches are being carried out particularly in regional and remote areas, and is urging more cases to come forward.

“I think this practice of strip-searches has been left to fester for years unattended and particularly in regards to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” Ms Lee said.

A systemic problem

The National Justice Project, a not-for-profit legal service that specialises in problems of abuse and discrimination, is also calling for changes to unlawful police procedures. 

Principal solicitor of the National Justice Project and human rights lawyer, George Newhouse, supported Ms Lee in her assessment of the figures and said it is part of a bigger issue.

"This is prejudiced policing," Mr Newhouse said.

"Why is it that Aboriginal people are over-represented in strip-searches? What we've done is we've given police extreme powers, and they don't exercise those powers fairly. They exercise their discretion against Aboriginal people and you're seeing that in the statistics, and it means to stop."

Mr Newhouse has also encouraged people to join the potential class action proceedings.

As global demonstrations against systemic racism continue to take place in the wake of George Floyd's death in the United States and more than 430 Indigenous deaths in custody here in Australia, Mr Newhouse believes now is the time to re-think the role of police in society. 

"In most cases, people should be diverted - especially young people - away from the criminal justice system,"

"Now, police forces around the world don't get rewarded for doing that, the whole system is set up to strip-search and to search, and to charge, and to feed our prisons and youth detention centers," he said. 

"If we stopped doing that, then I think you'll see a better society and a better relationship between people and the police."

Violent arrest of a young Aboriginal man by South Australian police caught on camera
UPDATE: South Australian Police have confirmed that video of the arrest of a 28-year-old Aboriginal man appears to show an officer striking the man while he was on the ground and say an internal investigation has commenced.