RLC in the Media: Strip searches and harm minimisation on ABC's Q&A

Research findings from a UNSW report, commissioned by Redfern Legal Centre, prompted a detailed discussion about police strip searches and harm minimisation on ABC's Q&A.

Q&A High School Special Broadcast on ABC TV, 26 August 2019.

The 'Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police' report found that unlawful strip searches are potentially widespread. The majority of strip searches (64%) find nothing, and the vast majority of charges as a result of a strip search (over 80%) are for minor drug possession for personal use, not drug supply.

In reponse to the report's findings about the dramatic rise in police strip searches, a student asked the Q&A panel: "How can young people feel assured that when we attend these festivals, that our right to privacy and freedom is respected?"


Can, uh...can I say, without divulging confidences, I actually had some parents raise something concerning that they felt happened to their daughter, and I actually listened to their issues, and the Police Commissioner of New South Wales very kindly did as well.

So we want to make sure people are safe when they attend any event, music festival or otherwise, but also that they’re treated respectfully and appropriately. So, we’re always looking at ways in which we can improve the respect that young people feel they’re receiving.

But also, the difficult thing that I have as premier is, you know, first and foremost, keeping the community safe. And it’s always difficult knowing where to draw the line on what community safety means.

A question was also put to the Premier about whether strip searches were akin to sexual abuse.


Well, definitely, I say to the point you raise that when concerns were raised with me, I then pursued them. And if there’s a better way for us to keep young people safe, of course we’ll look at that. There’s no doubt that we need to make sure we’re having better conversations with young people. Why has the incidence of drug-taking increased at these festivals? Why are people dying? Why are people sustaining serious injury?

And I think what people are crying out for, whether it’s arguing for pill testing or otherwise, young people want to have a conversation. They want to know what’s safe, what’s not. And, you know, I think there’s an obligation on governments to have that conversation with young people.

Other panalits also voiced concern about the trauma caused by strip searches, speaking out in favour of harm minimisation approaches.


I completely agree with the Premier on the fact we need a conversation with young people. But I don’t think there’s been a way that we’ve really facilitated this conversation. And, for me, I believe that pill testing at music festivals, from what I’ve read and from what I’ve heard, is that when people go to these pill-testing tents, they have a conversation with a professional. And a lot of the times they re-evaluate their choices, they rethink whether they actually want to take this drug.

And I think those re-evaluations are so necessary, and they’re so vital, and they’re showing us that perhaps pill testing is the answer, because, for a lot of people, these strip searches are...they’re just very triggering of past, like, sexual assaults or anything that they’ve had. Like, a lot of interviews have said that. And I think, for women and for males, it’s just so important to consider that, because I don’t think we want anybody to have those kind of experiences.


So, when I was premier, we legalised the Kings Cross injecting centre. Labor brought it in in the 1990s. Yeah, I do think harm minimisation has a role to play. I do think that pill testing deserves a trial in New South Wales. I don’t know where we’re going to get the evidence as to whether it works or not until we have a trial. And I know that when we have the opportunity to have these conversations, an intervention of sort, we can guide people to having...making better decisions at the most crucial point.

You know, the Premier is correct to raise some of the risks. But the risks are already there. People are taking these drugs. And as much as my youngest child, who loves to go to music festivals and gets a lecture from his mother every time, you know, “Don’t put anything in your mouth,” I’m well aware that there are young people that are going to do that.

Can I say, on the point about policing, that the police have a job to enforce the existing laws. The methods that they use, though, are something that you can write to your local member about, you can write to the Police Minister about, you can raise with the parliament, because the police are literally doing the job that they’re being asked to do by the parliament.

... If there are concerns – and, you know, people have already raised them with the Premier – they need to be taken up with the parliament.

Watch the full Q&A episode and read Facebook questions here (strip search discussion begins at 33:51)

Read the episode transcript here