Transparency and accountability lacking as rate of WA strip-searches rises 60%

Greens spokesperson for Integrity in Government Hon Alison Xamon MLC has called on the WA Government to improve transparency and accountability relating to the practice of strip-searching, as questions she asked in Parliament revealed that strip-searches during a ‘custody’ episode were up 60% in five years – while WA Police were unable to provide  information about strip searches conducted in ‘other circumstances.’

Ms Xamon said she was dismayed to learn that 35,484 people across the state were strip-searched during a custody episode in 2018/19; up over 60 % from 21,615 in 2014-15. This figure does not include strip searches undertaken by staff in WA prisons and detention centres.

She said strip-searches of people under 18 were up an alarming 37%, with Aboriginal women making up more than half of all women strip-searched.

“Strip-searches are a serious intrusion of a person’s privacy and dignity – without a legal justification they would be considered an assault,” Hon Xamon said.

“Being strip-searched is distressing and humiliating – and for people who have been victims of sexual violence the impact of strip searching can be re-traumatising and potentially cause lasting harm.

“The practice is likely to be particularly traumatic for people with mental health issues – and conflicts with a trauma-informed approach.”

Hon Xamon said a recent UNSW report noted that there was no best practice model for strip-searching in any jurisdiction in Australia – with WA police providing few limits on police powers in this area.

The report’s authors noted there was little accountability or transparency and little information available to the public about how, when, or why police use strip searches.

Ms Xamon said admissions by the Police Minister in the response provided to her question that strip searches “may be conducted by police in other circumstances however there is no systematic recording practice and therefore these cannot be reliably identified” were very concerning.

“This is completely at odds with police in the UK, who are required to provide quarterly public statistics,” Hon Xamon said.

“Given the potential to cause harm, strip searching should only ever be done when justified by serious circumstances.”

“WA Police must work to reduce the use of strip-searches including through the use of body-scanning whenever possible, and the WA Government should make it a priority to improve transparency and accountability and to clarify laws in this area.