I encountered two public strip searches in 2019. One I watched on the side of the road in St Leonards, an affluent suburb north of the Sydney CBD. The other played out in a courtroom in Wollongong where the illegal search led to other charges being dropped.
Public strip searches are similar to what happens in prison, but without walls, doors or convictions. And in New South Wales our police seem to be addicted to the practice.
I was strip searched endlessly in prison. The most traumatic was one where I thought a door might open. Now I don’t go anywhere there’s a chance I might meet cops and end up searched in public.
Right now in NSW, strip searches are happening on the side of busy roads, on concourses at busy train stations, to underage kids at underage events with improper supervision, to women pushed up against the windows of cafes on a busy shopping strip.
I don’t get out much and never take public transport.
One outing I do commit to though is a regular drive from Wollongong to St Leonards for therapy. This was where I saw the first public strip search in mid-2019. The panic it set off erased most of that day’s session.
Two cops had a man out of his car on a busy corner in a school zone right at afternoon pick up time. Traffic was slow. I watched till they got down to his underwear before the lights let me through.
While I watched the search, I also watched other people watching. People moved past or waited at the lights, all watching. They didn’t seem surprised. School boys in ties looked and laughed but didn’t seem shocked.
The man taking his clothes off didn’t stand out, looked just like the people watching. He wasn’t resisting. Looked confused but also not shocked.
Everyone there accepted this search.
I wanted to scream out my window, challenge the cops, film them. But I was driving. And I don’t do anything when I’m driving that might attract police attention. So I sat silent, also accepted it.
Not many options, really.
New South Wales has a problem with strip searches, one that those in power don’t want us to look too closely at.
In November 2019, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller sent a video to his force, seemingly encouraging them to ignore public sentiments on the issue of strip searches.
“They need to have respect and a little bit of fear for law enforcement,” Fuller said, assuring police that he ‘fully supported’ their use of strip searches.
Looking at the upward annual slope of the strip search trend in NSW, one can hardly be blamed for wondering if the NSW Police Force really need any more encouragement right now.
In 2014-15, police in NSW conducted 3,735 strip searches, by 2017-18 that number had grown to 5,483 and again to 5,695 by 1 Jan 2019.
In 2009 if a drug dog sat down next to you (‘indicated you’), there was a 3% chance you would be strip searched, by 2017 it was 11%. We’ve strip searched 340 boys in the last three years, 122 girls. Our police refuse to cooperate with investigators and don’t think volunteers supervising children being searched need to have a working with children check.
With the police so eagerly embracing public strip searches, surely we must be seeing a pay off in the courts?
Not from what I saw in the courtroom of Magistrate Clisdell at Wollongong Local Court in November last year.
I was stuck in the court for the day and watched this hearing to pass time.
To summarise, police filed counterfeit money charges against a known offender after finding evidence near his house. These charges were thrown out because the Court determined that the whole matter started with an illegal public strip search.
This poor bloke hadn’t been out of prison for long and was sitting on the side of a six lane road in Port Kembla waiting for a friend to pick him up. Cops went past on the other side and because one of them ‘knew him’, decided to conduct a search.
They U-turned, pulled up near him and strip searched him on the side of the road. Didn’t find anything. So they called in the dog squad. Cops and dogs searched the hill and paddock near the guy’s house, still didn’t find anything.
Later that afternoon the cops dropped around to his house, just to ‘say hello’. Found drugs and counterfeit money in the yard next door and decided they’d made their case. Investigation into the matter, as the cops told the Court, involved waving the bag of money and drugs towards the poor bloke’s house and yelling ‘we’ve got you now, paperwork’s in the mail.’
In his judgement, Magistrate Clisdell mused that if fake money charge didn’t come with a 10 year sentence, he might not have looked closer at the evidence. The strip search, he posited, commenced the matter and so it’s illegality was relevant to the matter.
He dismissed the charges.
This was the first time this man had ever pled ‘not guilty’.
There were people driving past that search, just like I drove past the one in St Leonards. They accepted this, like I did.
It’s time we stop expecting this, time we get outraged.
Angela Williams is a former prisoner and drug addict turned university lecturer, who dissects the Australian prison system from the inside out in her new memoir, Snakes and Ladders (Affirm Press).