HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [9.56 pm]: I rise tonight because I want to make some comments about police strip searches. It is in response to some answers that I received in the final week of Parliament last year. Today, I have received some answers to questions that I put on notice. I wanted to find out the number of strip searches that are occurring in Western Australia, particularly the number of strip searches involving children. We have found that strip searches conducted by police during a custody episode has increased by 60 per cent over the last five years. Of the 8 640 women who were searched in 2018–19, over half of them were Aboriginal. Also, 1 450 children and young people under the age of 18 were searched. I point out that this does not include searches undertaken by corrective services staff or police in circumstances other than what they are characterising as a custody episode.
Going into even more detail, in answer to the questions that I received today, the number of children strip searched were 19 10-year-olds, 24 11-year-olds and 68 12-year-olds. I am horrified by these sorts of figures. We should be very concerned about what is happening and the regime around strip searches. I also want to point out that of the children strip searched in 2018–19, six of those children—that is, under the age of 18—identified as trans. We are talking six trans children found themselves being strip searched by police.
A further concern was that the information provided as part of the response to my question on notice stated that strip searches may be conducted by police in other circumstances; however, there is no systemic recording practice and therefore these cannot be reliably identified. That means we do not actually know how many strip searches are happening in Western Australia. We do not know how many police are doing it. We do not have accurate information about where and in what circumstances people are being strip searched. I think that is a particularly pertinent issue given that the New South Wales Law Enforcement Conduct Commission investigation into strip search practices of New South Wales police has already uncovered some rather appalling practices including regarding the strip searches of children. I note what I think were particularly abhorrent comments made by the New South Wales police minister, that he would want officers to search his own children if they were suspected of breaking a law. I have to say that I do not share the same view. I note that unfortunately that inquiry is now in limbo following the departure of chief commissioner Michael Adams and it is a shame, because we really need to look at what is happening with this issue around Australia. We should not be minimising the seriousness of what strip searches involve. They represent a serious intrusion of a person’s privacy and dignity, and if someone does not have any sort of legal justification for it, actions taken as part of a strip search constitute behaviour that absolutely constitutes an assault. That is what they are. In fact, the Inspector of Custodial Services has spoken about this, and he noted that being strip searched is, “A distressing, humiliating and degrading experience.” For those people who have been victims of sexual violence, the impact of strip searching can be re-traumatising, causing great distress and potential lasting harm. We know that strip searching conflicts with the trauma-informed approach that we know we need to take in particular with people who are experiencing mental health issues.
It might be tempting to dismiss the information that is coming out of New South Wales as not being relevant to WA, but that would be a mistake. The authors of a New South Wales report released earlier last year noted that there is no single model of best practice in Australia and that the laws of Western Australia provide very few limits on police powers in this area. The report continues to note that there is little accountability or transparency around police search practices across Australia and little public information about how and when police are using strip searches or, just as concerningly, the reasons why. This, I point out, is in stark contrast to what happens in the United Kingdom, where the police are required by law to provide quarterly public statistics. The report also recommends clarification of laws, including when and how searches should be conducted. It went on to conclude that our laws are not strong enough to protect the public from unnecessary strip searches and they do not provide clear guidance to police. It pointed out that law reform is needed to ensure that police have the powers they need but that strip searches are used only when they are truly necessary, and for urgent and serious reasons.
All jurisdictions, including WA, need to take a long hard look at what is happening with their strip searching practices. People who are more likely to be strip searched are more often those who are vulnerable and therefore most likely to suffer from harm as a result of being strip searched—for example, as I said, Aboriginal people, young women and people who experience mental health issues. I recognise that it is a very tricky area. Police have a duty of care, and one of the things we absolutely do not want is people dying by their own hand in our police cells, but we need to be making every effort that we can to minimise trauma and distress. That means we will have to look at issues such as appropriate training; the use of technology, like body scanners; and also initiatives like the mental health co-response teams, which I recognise both the previous and current government have committed to. I would encourage further expansion of them.
We absolutely need to be asking at every opportunity whether the use of strip searches is reasonable and has a clear purpose, and, importantly, we need to be confident that it is genuinely in the public’s interest. It never should be routine and it should never be done as a political tactic, to pass judgement or to try to intimidate people. I note again the case of the peaceful protesters who were involved with Julie Bishop’s office in Subiaco. This is the Love Makes a Way crew who were strip searched. Some of those people are my friends, and I know they were deeply traumatised by that experience. Among the eight people strip searched were a female priest and a mother who had an infant. These people had been sitting down quietly praying. Did they need to be arrested? Yes, probably; they were prepared for that. Did they need to be strip searched? Absolutely not. It was a diabolical breach. They were praying. There was nothing remotely violent or threatening about their behaviour. We should not be deterring people from raising important issues nonviolently by threatening them with being strip searched. That is absolutely out of line. Strip searching is an intrusive violation that has the potential to cause serious long-term harm.
Therefore, we need to be very clear about the circumstances in which it is appropriate to permit a person to be strip searched. We need to work to reduce the use of strip searches. That includes providing, as I have said, options such as body scanning, wherever possible. We also need to improve transparency and accountability. That includes keeping and making public the available data about the number of strip searches that are undertaken and the circumstances under which they are undertaken.
I remain particularly concerned about the number of children who are subjected to strip searches. I think we can all imagine that these children are already pretty vulnerable. I take a guess that a number of them have been subject to sexual abuse. I wonder about the lifelong impact on those children of such practices.
To again quote the authors of the University of New South Wales report —
The power to strip search is one that ought to be exercised in exceptional and serious circumstances only, consistent with international human rights standards and social policy goals such as harm reduction.
We are nowhere near to best practice in Western Australia. We need to shed more light on this issue. We also need to look at reform around this issue.