RLC in the Media: Illegally strip-searching teens isn’t “serious misconduct”, oversight body rules

According to the lone police oversight body in NSW, the practice of strip searching teenagers does not equate to ‘serious misconduct’.

Paul Gregoire reports for The Big Smoke

A 16-year-old First Nations boy was walking down the main street of a major town in northwestern NSW on 25 November 2018, when, on seeing police, he dropped a foil of cannabis in his possession. The youth then picked it back up and stashed it in the front pocket of his shorts.

Having seen the boy’s reaction, NSW sergeant MAI1 – as he was subsequently referred to – approached the teenager. The boy denied doing anything and told the officer he wasn’t wearing any underwear.

After telling the teen’s two friends to “move on”, he directed the boy to place his hands on the fence and proceeded to place his fingers inside the waistband of the youth’s shorts and pulled on it, so he could look inside. The sergeant was well aware at the time this constituted a strip search.

The youth told the officer his parents needed to be present for a strip search to take place. It was obvious to those gathered that the teen was under 18.

“Well, you actually don’t know the rules, we can search you,” countered MAI1, despite the fact that he wasn’t following police protocol. And the officer didn’t locate the cannabis, even though it was in the boy’s pocket.

At that point, constables MAI3 and MAI4 turned up in a caged truck. Officer MAI3 told the youth that he’d be getting his “gear off” down at the station, so they could locate the drugs.

This illegal strip search and the one that followed became the focus of an investigation known as Operation Mainz conducted by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC). And the state’s lone police oversight body released its findings on 8 May.

Operation Mainz is part of a wider strip search inquiry the LECC launched in late October 2018. It was prompted by “a number of specific complaints and anecdotal information from a variety of community organisations” about the way police had been conducting strip searches in NSW.

The LECC investigation was announced a few months after NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge had released figures showing that the number of strip searches being carried out following a drug dog indication had recently doubled over a two year period. And a report released by the Redfern Legal Centre last August revealed a twentyfold increase in strip search use since 2006. Operation Mainz included video footage of the 16-year-old Aboriginal boy being strip-searched again in the vehicle dock at the police station.

The footage shows MAI1 ordering the handcuffed youth to place his hands on the wall. The officer then checks his pockets, pulls his shorts down, lifts up his shirt and then pushes upon the youth’s shoulder forcing him to squat. This all happens as officers MAI3 and MAI4 are standing by.

As the underage teen stands naked, MAI3 then conducts a thorough search of his shorts, while MAI1 walks over to the van and finds the cannabis inside it. MAI1 then goes back over to the boy – who’s still naked from the waist down – and questions him about the drugs for around 30 seconds.

During the two unlawful searches, the officers breached section 32 of the LEPRA in a number of ways. These included questioning the subject during the strip search and failing to provide him with “reasonable privacy”.

The LECC found that the conduct of the police officers during the strip searches amounted to “unsatisfactory performance”. However, due to their lack of effective training – which has resulted in inadequate policing practices – it didn’t constitute serious misconduct.

Read the full article here (The Big Smoke, 18 May 2020)