Images via Unharm
While the use of drug detection dogs at NSW music festivals is well known, what’s not is that the police are strip searching people throughout the state on a regular basis. NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge released figures from 2013 that indicate 17,746 searches were carried out after positive sniffer dog indications, and of these 11,331, or 64 percent, were false. He said although figures are not available as to how many of these people were actually strip searched, the number would have been high.
This comes as no surprise to Jason, a 24-year-old university student, who prefers not to provide his real name. Last year, he was volunteering at the Stereosonic music festival, when a sniffer dog gave him a positive drugs indication, even though he wasn’t carrying anything. After going through his belongings and finding nothing, the police took him away to be strip searched.
“They took me into a little tent. I took off all my clothes. They're like, ‘You don't have anything.’” Jason said. “It was really humiliating. The fact that they didn't apologise was ridiculous and they were so aggressive with their questioning.”
Leighton is a 23-year-old student at the Australian National University. He’s been strip searched three times over the past three years, twice at music festivals and once at King’s Cross station. On each occasion, he was in possession of a small amount of cannabis, which he admitted to and handed over before the search occurred. Each search required him to remove his clothes, turn his back to the police and squat. He explained that it’s a common occurrence: “It happens at festivals all the time. They've got booths set up to strip search you. It's basically a known thing that where there's sniffer dogs, they'll be strip searches as well.”
Over the last 25 years, Paul Dillon, director of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, has helped organise festivals, liaised with police and provided medical assistance at such events. “Certainly from observing what occurs at festivals, people are being strip searched and are having quite unpleasant experiences as a result,” he said. “There doesn't seem to be any rules, regulations, or most importantly, any information provided about people's rights.”
For the police to conduct a pat-down or a search, a dog needs to give a positive indication, but as Dillon explained, there’s a lack of clarity as to what constitutes a positive indication. Often when a dog does make an indication, it’s found to be a false positive. In 2006, a NSW Ombudsman report found that in 10,000 drug dog detections over two years, only 26 percent of suspects were in possession of illegal drugs.
“I can remember one girl who was totally traumatised by the experience,” says Dillon. “She’d been strip searched and was mortified. The girl had no drugs on her, was not a drug user, but had been through a very traumatic experience. That event got me to question… is the benefit worth the potential risks to people who have no contact with drugs?”
Marty, a 39-year-old, who works in hospitality, was strip searched at the 2012 Mardi Gras Toy Box party. He was approached by an officer with a sniffer dog, two other constables arrived on the scene and then Marty admitted that he was in the possession of ketamine.
He described what happened next: “I was taken down into the holding pen. It was a fenced off area, with black plastic around chicken wire fencing. I was basically told to strip down. It was very intimidating, because I had these three cops in my face. I was basically bare-naked,” Marty said.
All eyes were on the policing of this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, after concerns had been raised about the heavy-handed policing of the 2013 event, especially regarding the use of drug dog detections and strip searches. But according to Dan Stubbs, director of the Inner City Legal Centre, much more discernment was used in the policing of this year’s event. If a police officer had grounds for reasonable suspicion, an individual was taken to a senior officer, who would then make a decision as to whether a strip search was required.
“They followed the law much more carefully. It was a much more judicious approach. The strip search was far less likely to be the first kind of response,” Stubbs said. “Previously, if there was any level of reasonable suspicion, then quite often the first step was to conduct a strip search.”
Stubbs also pointed out that although the policing of Mardi Gras was toned down this year, there was no significant difference in the number of medical problems caused by drugs.
NSW Police Force corporate spokesperson for sexuality and gender diversity Superintendent Tony Crandell told VICE that the approach to the policing of the 2014 Mardi Gras was more holistic due to the input from local LGBTI community partners. But the approach to strip searches at the event did not reflect a state-wide policy change.
Yet Will Tregoning, director of harm reduction organisation, Unharm, said the act states that the searches should be carried out when the “seriousness and urgency of the circumstances require the strip search,” and he questions whether this is the case with these drug searches.
There are two main reasons to oppose the strip search operations, explains Tregoning: “The benefits of this program are so small that they don't justify that level of invasion of privacy, but also... what we're seeing… is that people who attend these events are very dismissive of police. Programs like this bring the police into disrepute.”
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