‘I was totally humiliated and embarrassed’
Sniffer dogs are as much part of Sydney life today as overpriced brunches and sudden public transport breakdowns.
We're not just talking about the entrances to music festivals such as Defqon1 and Psyfari - the government has already pulled the plug on those events.
Take a wander through Sydney's Central station during peak hour and you may well find yourself stopped by police, taken behind a semipublic barricade and stripsearched - even though, statistically, your pockets will probably yield nothing more illicit than a set of house keys.
In an especially baffling case last year, high school leavers had a dozen officers with sniffer dogs swoop in on their year 12 formal.
A report released last week found the number of strip-searches conducted in NSW has increased almost 20-fold in the past 12 years.
Research suggests the overwhelming majority of drug dog searches are fruitless; more often than not, no drugs are found, yet those stopped are still made to endure procedures such as strip searches and "squat and cough" tests many have described as "traumatic" and "dehumanising".
Police and the NSW Government maintain, however, that searches are necessary to keep the community safe.
This week, news.com.au spoke to more than a dozen young people who had been stripsearched by police on suspicion of being in possession of illicit drugs.
Most requested anonymity, saying they feared reputational damage despite doing nothing wrong.
Here's what they had to say.
'THIS ABUSE OF POWER NEEDS TO STOP'
Lucy Moore knows from experience how traumatic strip-searches can be.
In March, the 19-year-old was stopped by a drug dog at Hidden Festival in Sydney. She said she had just one drink at her hotel before arriving, and had neither consumed nor carried any illegal drugs with her to the event.
A police officer told her she had been detected by a sniffer dog, and she was taken away to be stripsearched in a semi-private space.
"Not only did I see other people being searched, during my search the door was left half open and only blocked by the small female cop. I could easily see outside, which means that attendees and the male cops outside could have easily seen in as well," Ms Moore said.
"Not only this, a girl in the cubicle next to me was also searched with her door still open with a couple cops entering and leaving at will."
Ms Moore said she was made to "squat and cough" - a practice that entails bending over and coughing under the eye of officers to see if drugs are concealed in the rectal area.
Experts say the practice is legally questionable due to restrictions on anyone but a medical practitioner conducting a body cavity search.
At the end of her "humiliating and embarrassing" ordeal, Ms Moore said she was interrogated, held for over an hour and ultimately still kicked out of the festival - all despite no drugs being found on her.
Legal experts tell news.com.au there have been several cases in recent years of festival-goers being denied entry into events, even though they were not found to be carrying drugs and paid for valid tickets.
"It makes me feel disgusted, for police to constantly be breaching laws and taking advantage of young people who don't know better. It's terrifying," Ms Moore told news.com.au.
A status she posted about the incident in March went viral, with more than 2000 shares and 12,000 reactions on Facebook.
"I think with the festival culture most teens are around these days, that strip-searches from police are something they deal with constantly, so it's something that they can all relate with," she said.
Ms Moore never received an apology from police and her ban from Sydney Olympic Park is still in place.
"I'm hoping we can get reform. Change is obviously needed to keep people's privacy," she said.
"Only 30 per cent of people will be charged and almost all of them being for very small amounts of drugs for personal use - leaving those 70 per cent with a humiliating and traumatic experience for absolutely no reason. It has to change."
It's not just festivals and dance parties where people are targeted. Police dogs are increasingly frequenting train stations, street corners, small pubs and restaurants.
One Sydneysider, who declined to be named, said he was stripsearched a few years ago at Marrickville Bowling Club, a lawn bowls centre in Sydney's inner west.
"I was violently grabbed by the arms by the police and marched to the entrance of the club, where people were entering and leaving the party," he told news.com.au.
"In full view of other patrons, they made me take off my shoes and socks, looked inside my underwear and checked all my pockets and wallet, becoming increasingly aggressive and frustrated as they found nothing.
"There was no apology at the end for the wrongful search; they just seemed to assume that I was guilty but they couldn't find the evidence. I reported the search but nothing came of the report.
"This abuse of power needs to stop."
Another Sydneysider, who requested only to be identified as Nate, said he was escorted out of a Sydney music festival by police after he was seen texting a friend.
"I was singled out as I was there by myself waiting for a mate who was coming from the other side of Sydney, so I was texting a lot and walking from stage to stage depending who was playing," he told news.com.au.
Later, as they were dancing in the middle of the dancefloor, he said police tapped both of them on the shoulder and told them to follow them outside.
"We were both sober as a judge," he said.
Nate described a setting in which a large group of police officers and security guards made him drop his pants and underwear, and pull up his shirt to be patted down.
"It made me feel very uncomfortable and like a criminal for doing absolutely zero wrong," he said. "I asked the security why we were targeted. They said that they had seen me walking around texting constantly on my phone and then meeting my mate, they followed us in to where we were dancing.
"Getting pulled out in front of others we knew as well and explaining it to them after was a sh*t feeling."
Another young woman gave evidence in July at an inquest into six drug-related festival deaths over the summers of 2017 and 2018.
The woman, whose identity was suppressed, told the NSW Coroners Court heavy security at a music festival she attended made her feel "like a criminal" and that the officer in charge threatened to strip-search her "nice and slow".
"Everyone was staring at me," she said. "I have been stripsearched twice and they've never found anything on me."
"She said, 'If you don't tell me where the drugs are I'm going to make this nice and slow,'" the woman said of the female police officer who conducted the test. "She made me take my shorts off and my underwear.
"Then she made me squat and cough … and then I had to turn around and squat and cough."
ARE STRIP-SEARCHES LEGAL?
It is legal for police to request a drug search if they have reasonable suspicion to do so.
But aspects of this process - such as what constitutes "reasonable suspicion" and the validity of the "squat and cough" method - fall into a grey area.
Jahan Kalantar, a lawyer who represents young people convicted after drug dog searches, told news.com.au their experiences are often "traumatic" and "terrifying".
He said police needed to establish grounds to justify a search.
Drug dogs are an important part of this, but because they're notoriously unreliable, police use other undisclosed, vague information to select a person. Police might claim that you look nervous, or that your behaviour suggests you've taken illicit substances, but there is no official checklist.
The initial search involves removing your accessories and outer layers - backpacks, handbags, coats and hats. At this stage, police can turn out your pockets, pat you down, search your hair and instruct you to open your mouth.
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, who runs the anti-drug dog initiative Sniff Off, has long advocated against the practice.
"Often you're surrounded by six or seven police officers with dogs nearby. It can be very intimidating," Mr Shoebridge said.
"If nothing is found in that first search, what they should do is apologise and let people go on their way," he said.
But statistics show this is not the case, with people increasingly being taken away for full strip-searches.
A strip-search, according to experts, involves the removal of clothing but should not extend to making the person expose their breasts or genital areas. They must also be conducted by a member of the same sex.
The "squat and cough" practice is arguably illegal, according to Mr Shoebridge, as it constitutes a "body cavity search" and thus requires a medical practitioner to be present.
Mr Shoebridge said it also breached "the overarching requirement to preserve privacy and dignity".
"It's far from uncommon. It's a regular occurrence," he added.
Mr Kalantar said the legality of "squat and cough" was murky.
"Police are not trained to the extent of, say, a clinical doctor," he told news.com.au. "I think it's certainly a dirty practice.
"I don't understand how it's a good usage of police resources.
"If you're a father or a mother, do you really want police tapping on your children's genitals? Do you really want a state that says it's OK for this to occur? I have several clients who have been stripsearched - some of whom are child sex abuse survivors. It's traumatic for them. It reawakens that torment. (Strip-searches) should only be used on very special occasions."
WHAT DO POLICE AND THE GOVERNMENT SAY?
Police authorities stand by the prevalence of drug dogs and strip-searches, arguing it's an effective way to ensure community safety.
News.com.au put a series of questions to NSW Police regarding the number of strip-search operations at Central station, the number of strip-searches conducted in NSW overall, and the cost of running operations involving drug dogs.
A spokesperson for NSW Police said the force detected illicit drugs on 1553 occasions during field strip-searches last year.
"Police officers do not enjoy carrying out strip-searches, but it is a power that has been entrusted to us and searches reveal drugs and weapons," a spokesperson said.
"People who are trying to hide such items frequently secrete them in private places, and the only way to locate them is by a strip-search, which may involve asking the person to squat.
"Police are trained not to rely solely on a drug-detection dog indication when they exercise their search powers."
Police said 82 per cent of strip-searches over the past five years resulted in either drugs being found on the person, or the person admitting to recent use or possession.
These statistics are incongruous with separate research conducted by the Redfern Legal Centre, Sniff Off and the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, which all argued the figure of "false positives" was far higher.
Police also said strip-searches were only carried out in a minority of cases, but did not comment on their increase over the past decade.
"Field strip-searches represent fewer than 1 per cent of the total number of all searches in NSW. Only about 20 per cent of strip-searches are initiated following a drug-detection dog indication. The majority of person searches carried out by police are not strip-searches.
"Training for police in how to undertake a person search occurs at the Police Academy and is reinforced in a number of forums throughout an officer's career."
The NSW government likewise takes an unapologetically hard-line approach to combating drug use.
Appearing on the ABC Q&A panel last week, Premier Gladys Berejiklian was asked about the rise in strip-searches.
She argued safety should ultimately take first priority, and the presence of police and drug dogs was the best way to ensure that safety.
"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," the Premier said. "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 keeping the community safe. It's always difficult knowing where to draw the line on what community safety means.
"The bottom line is, and you could call me old-fashioned if you like, but illegal drugs are illegal for a reason.
"Please go and have fun and enjoy yourselves, but don't risk not coming back to your family and friends, because there's nothing worse than seeing a young person's life lost."
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU'RE STOPPED?
Legal experts say you can't refuse a search if it's demanded, but it's important to stress that you don't consent to the search.
"The first thing you need to say is that you do not consent. Be polite, be affable, but say you do not consent," Mr Kalantar said.
By making police note that you don't consent to a search, the evidence may be put aside if the search is later found to be unlawful, he explained.
That said, you should always comply with police requests, as refusing to be stripsearched would likely land you in hot water.
Mr Kalantar also recommended you ask police if you are free to leave, and stressed that you had the right to request to speak to a lawyer.
He said there were some cases - such as being under 18 or of indigenous background - where you were afforded extra protections.
If a person is found to have drugs on them, the consequences range in severity depending on the quantity and police officer in question.
If the amount is small enough to warrant personal consumption - say, a single joint or a couple of pills - Mr Shoebridge says police can choose to issue a caution or an infringement notice, which doesn't require court attendance.
But police can also choose to take it further. "Police can, purely at their own discretion, decide to formally charge you and make you go to court," he said. "This can have devastating consequences."
That said, even if police didn't find drugs on you, they have the power to deny you entry into a festival - as was the case with Ms Moore.
"Getting your money back is only half the battle," said Mr Kalantar, who confirmed several clients of his had had their tickets confiscated in these circumstances. "There's all these extra costs - hotels, travelling interstate, petrol.
"It's a ludicrous position that a young person attends a festival but just because an indication is made, they may lose the right to attend that festival."
Ultimately, Mr Kalantar stressed it was important not to jump to conclusions if you're issued with a court notice, or assume your life is over.
"I really want young people to understand it's OK to make mistakes, and there are people who can help them and it's OK," he said. "Mistakes like this won't ruin your life."
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