NSW police minister defends strip-searching of children, saying parents would be 'happy'

Michael McGowan
Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

The New South Wales police minister, David Elliott, has defended the practice of strip-searching minors, saying he would want police to strip-search his children if they were suspected of breaking the law.

Guardian Australia revealed on Wednesday that in the last three years police in NSW have strip-searched 122 girls, including two 12-year-olds.

The shocking figures were obtained by the Redfern Legal Centre under freedom of information laws and come as the state’s police watchdog investigates the potentially illegal strip-search of a 16-year-old girl at a music festival in 2018.

Related: Revealed: NSW police strip-searched more than 100 girls, including 12-year-olds

The RLC has called for a ban on strip-searching minors unless a court order is obtained, saying the current legal thresholds are inadequate.

But Elliott has defended the police’s ability to strip-search minors, telling reporters on Wednesday he “would want” officers to strip-search his own children.

“I’ve got young children and if I thought the police felt they were at risk of doing something wrong I’d want them strip-searched,” Elliott said.

“Having been minister for juvenile justice, we have 10-year-olds involved in terrorism activity.”

Figures released during budget estimates in February showed that in the five years to November 2018 nothing was found in 63% of strip-searches, but Elliott said he thought parents would be “pretty happy” if their children were strip-searched and found with drugs.

“I think you’d be pretty happy that they got found out,” he said.

The minister’s comments come amid increasing focus on the use of the controversial practice. The NSW Law Enforcement and Conduct Commission revealed last week that it is investigating six separate allegations of misuse of strip-search powers by police last year.

In NSW, police are permitted to carry out field strip-searches only if the urgency and seriousness of the situation requires it. In the case of minors, a parent, guardian or support person must be present during the search unless it’s necessary for the safety of the person or to prevent evidence being destroyed.

Related: NSW police watchdog fully investigated just 2% of 'firehose' of complaints

The LECC inquiry last month heard that some officers did not know their obligation in relation to minors and, in the case of the 16-year-old, there was no justification for initiating the search.

The watchdog is also reviewing whether it is legal for officers to force people to squat during a strip-search, a common practice used by police in NSW. In September, the police published a new personal search manual for the first time which allows officers to instruct people to squat, lift their testicles or breasts, or part their buttock cheeks.

Elliott conceded that police had breached their obligations in some cases, but insisted people who felt they had been wrongly searched could file a complaint.

“Of course they haven’t always been used according to the standard operating procedures and anybody who feels that has been done erroneously has got some reply to that,” he said.

The NSW attorney general, Mark Speakman, also defended the use of strip-search powers but said police had to “get the balance right”.

“Strip-searches are an important investigative tool but obviously we have to get the balance right, they need to be used only where appropriate,” he said.

“They can be invasive, they can be stressful, that’s why we have the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission doing a general review of strip-searches and operations in NSW and I look forward to its report.”