New data provided by the Redfern Legal Centre has revealed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people in New South Wales are disproportionately targeted for police strip searches
The Redfern Legal Centre is investigating a potential class-action on behalf of people who have been unlawfully strip searched in the last six years.
The data shows 13 per cent of strip searches are undertaken on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, a demographic that makes up only 3 percent of the state's population.
Redfern Legal Centre’s Police Accountability Practice solicitor Samantha Lee told NITV News that Indigenous Australians have endured the brunt of an extremely high rate of strip searches for too long.
“Police have failed and continue to fail when a strip search occurs. Police are targeting vulnerable people, and it is very unjust,” said Ms Lee.
The highest number of strip searches conducted on Indigenous people between 2018 and 2020 were in the regional towns and cities of Dubbo (66), Taree (43), Moree (32) and Orange (23), which collectively recorded 164 searches.
Ms Lee believes the figures could be much higher due to what she described as "consistent lack of reporting by police".
Other areas that recorded high numbers of strip searches of Indigenous people were Aldavilla, Bathurst, Bourke, and Wellington.
The inner-city suburb of Surry Hills also recorded a high number, with 37 searches over the same period.
“I surmise that the fact that this is happening more in regional communities is because police area commands have developed their own cultures which target Aboriginal people and racially profile when it comes to strip searching,” Ms Lee said.
Strip searched 35 times
Taree resident Wayne Stewart-Paulson told NITV News that he believes he has been the victim of ongoing racial profiling and said he has been strip searched by local police officers more than 35 times.
“Taree police are racist. Indigenous people here have no trust or confidence in the coppers at all. There’s no communication. The only time we see them up here talking to us is to question someone," he said.
“I was targeted by the police on the side of the main road once at peak hour. Two officers pulled my pants down leaving me completely exposed without explaining anything when they found nothing on me. They just got in the car and drove off while I was left hanging my head. I was humiliated and traumatised, from that moment I just speak when spoken to and nothing more with the police.”
Mr Stewart-Paulson said police officers should be held accountable and he agrees that the overuse of the “traumatic” strip searching practice on Indigenous people must be addressed urgently.
“I have been strip searched twice in one night, both searches found nothing, I was just targeted by them because I was Aboriginal, and it just makes me heaps more resentful towards the police.”
Community member and cultural officer, Leonie Morcombe, told NITV News that she would be “hard-pressed” to find a local Indigenous person in the Taree area who has not been the victim of police harassment.
“They’re meant to be here to protect and serve, but what they actually do is target and search," said Ms Morcombe.
“It even happened to me when I was a young girl. Nothing has changed here, they will see a black person walking and straight away they just suspect they’re doing something wrong."
Taree Indigenous Development and Employment CEO, Uncle John Clarke, told NITV News that the relationship between local police and Indigenous community members had “never been good” and has deteriorated over recent years.
“They’ve taken important things away. Aboriginal liaison officers still work at the station but aren’t even allowed to communicate with the community or a person’s family when one of our fellas are locked up anymore. That was very important to us," said Mr Clarke.
“They’re always patrolling the streets that are highly populated with Indigenous people and driving around the suburbs that aren’t where all the rich people live.”
Mr Clarke said most people who have negative interactions with officers do not share their experiences with the broader community, as they fear that no action will be taken.
An Indigenous committee regularly consults with police, said Mr Clarke, but he fears that little will change until police officers receive more cultural training.
“The police need to get behind us and support Indigenous people, but right now our people do not even feel comfortable talking to them. I don’t feel confident talking to them myself."
Indigenous youth subjected to police strip searches
The data also shows an increasing rate of strip searchers of Indigenous children aged 11 to 17-years-old, with 42 strip searches carried out by police between 2018-2020.
Twenty per cent of children strip-searched in 2019-2020 were Indigenous, up from 13 per cent the previous year.
A spokesperson for NSW Police told NITV News that officers undergo rigorous and ongoing training for strip searches and comply with legislation that preserves people’s privacy and dignity, with additional safeguards in place to protect children and vulnerable people.
“Officers are trained to deal with the public in a respectful and empathetic manner, and to be aware of potential cultural sensitivities,” said the spokesperson.
The police spokesperson said strip searches are a “vital detection tool” and are often a necessary measure to find and seize illegal items.
“Police officers do not enjoy carrying out strip searches, but it is a necessary power that has been entrusted to us with good reason.”
But Ms Lee labelled the use of the practice on children as “antiquated and harmful”. She said it goes against all principles of a child protection framework.
“The psychological experience of those strip-searched is akin to the trauma of a sexual assault case," said Ms Lee.
A potential class action
The Redfern Legal Centre and law firm Slater and Gordon have called for people affected by police strip searches over the past six years to contact them and share their stories as part of a potential class action.
The class action would aim to hold police accountable and achieve justice for those subjected to unlawful strip searches, said Ms Lee.
Ms Lee told NITV News that while the class action is in the registration stage, if the proceedings go ahead, they will advocate for legislative change and financial compensation for those who have been subjected to the “invasive, humiliating and traumatic” practice of unwarranted strip searches.
“When sharing their stories people are in tears and humiliated. The psychological impacts of strip searches are yet to be fully disclosed, but I have no doubt that the practice has a tremendous impact on both adults and children,” said Ms Lee.