Police and security out in force with sniffer dogs checking concertgoers at the FOMO music festival Adelaide this week January. Picture: AAP/Emma Brasier
Police and security out in force with sniffer dogs checking concertgoers at the FOMO music festival Adelaide this week January. Picture: AAP/Emma Brasier

Strip-searches at festivals: NSW Police under investigation

DYLAN Bortolus has always dreaded queuing for music festivals.

He knew he would have to wait to be processed, go through metal detectors and be subjected to a search by dogs sniffing for drugs and weapons.

It was earlier this year when he was waiting to go into popular hard-style music festival Knockout with his fiancee and 18-year-old brother when a guard approached him.

"We were walking to the entrance when an officer clicked his fingers at my fiancee and told the dog to sit," he said.

What happened next shocked him.

Mr Bortolus alleges police said they would conduct a strip search despite there being no indication he had drugs on him. If he refused to comply, they said he would be arrested.

"The whole time were treated like criminals and the police officers were aggressive, calling us liars," he said.

"My brother was a little scared he was going to miss his first ever event."

Nothing was found but Mr Bortolus said the process made him feel violated and cautious of authorities.

He's not the only one.

 

Police are accused of using aggressive tactics against festival-goers. Picture: Derek Moore
Police are accused of using aggressive tactics against festival-goers. Picture: Derek Moore

As the rate of strip searches in NSW has almost doubled in just one year, hundreds of similar stories have emerged.

From January to May this year, 735 strip searches alone were conducted with 63 per cent resulting in no drugs found despite indication by sniffer dogs.

Under the law, police can only conduct a strip search if they believe there are serious and urgent grounds to do so - especially if a person is suspected of carrying concealed drugs or weapons.

But NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge believes most searches fall outside that criteria.

"It's now almost an automatic escalation, particularly at music festivals," he said.

NSW police announced in June a new sniffer dog approach where people were refused entry to a festival if a drug dog indicated they had substances on them.

The strategy, used at festivals such as Defqon.1 and Above and Beyond, has since been described by many as heavy-handed.

Scott - another concert goer - told news.com.au he was also unfairly targeted by police and then denied entry to a Midnight Mafia event as a result of the new approach.

"I was treated like dirt," he said. "I was polite and followed their orders then once (I was) found with nothing they told me I was being escorted off the site.

"A lot of people have a trust issue with (police) at events because of the heavy-handed tactics they have used on innocent people that paid money to have a great day."

Tickets to Midnight Mafia cost upwards of $150.

One complainant, who spoke to news.com.au under the condition of anonymity, said he had seen first-hand the unintended consequences of sniffer dogs.

"I brought my good friend to an event this month and (when he) saw the crazy police presence, he decided to eat all his stuff because he was worried what would happen if he got caught," he said.

"People will continue to do it while this approach is happening at events."

 

A sniffer dog at this week’s FOMO festival in Adelaide. Picture: AAP/Emma Brasier
A sniffer dog at this week’s FOMO festival in Adelaide. Picture: AAP/Emma Brasier

 

'PEOPLE FEEL UNSAFE'

The increase in complaints has now sparked independent inquiry by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission into allegations NSW Police are abusing their strip search powers.

In response, Redfern Legal Centre in Sydney has launched the Safe and Sound campaign to provide legal advice to festival-goers through a website and app.

"Young people are being humiliated and scared by the strip search processes," said Samantha Lee of Redfern Legal Centre, whose clients are as young as 18.

She said the law was "vague" and failed to provide proper safeguards for members of the public.

"The overuse is making people feel unsafe and making them feel as though they can't approach police," she said.

Festival-goers are often pulled out of line as they enter a festival, escorted to a tent and asked to remove their clothing in front of two police officers.

There are reports some have been made to squat or cough to see if they're carrying anything internally.

"In most cases after all this has occurred nothing has been found on them but they're escorted out of the area and their ticket has been confiscated," Ms Lee said.

Redfern Legal Centre found police were strip searching punters with little cause.

"They were not told why they were being searched or the reasons why the strip search needed to be conducted," Ms Lee said.

"In many cases a whole lot of aspects of the law were not followed."

 

Sniffer dogs are out in force at summer music festivals. Picture: AAP/Emma Brasier
Sniffer dogs are out in force at summer music festivals. Picture: AAP/Emma Brasier

 

WHY THE INCREASE?

Mr Shoebridge believes the spike in strip searches in the past two years comes from a change in policy and signals a move towards more aggressive policing.

"Clearly there is a far more aggressive approach from police and for it to be so wide spread it must be with the support of very senior police," he said.

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller denied news.com.au's request for an interview but his spokesperson said: "Officers are able to search a person where they suspect on reasonable grounds (that they) are in possession of a drug, something stolen, a firearm or a prohibited weapon. There are controls and safeguards about how extensive, and on what basis, officers can proceed."

There have been 10 drug-related deaths at music festivals in the past five years.

A 22-year-old man died on December 30 after taking an unknown substance at the Lost Paradise Music Festival at Glenworth Valley. Three others were charged for allegedly possessing and dealing drugs.

Two people died at Sydney's Defqon.1 music festival in September from suspected overdoses, with hundreds more receiving medical assistance, prompting Premier Gladys Berejiklian to vow to shut down the music festival.

"Festival-goers have a right to enjoy these events without fear of harm. Parents and families expect us to do whatever we can to keep their children safe," she said in September.

The NSW Government has been staunchly against pill testing, but Ms Berejiklian softened her stance on the issue early this month, saying she would consider it if the government was shown evidence it saved lives.

The ACT allowed pill testing at Canberra's Groovin the Moo festival in April, after a trial found 40 per cent of participants said they would change their drug habits after finding out the contents of their substances.

However, Mr Shoebridge said the stripsearching alternative disproportionately targeted young people.

"I don't know how you could describe it other than a war on having fun," he said.

Aboriginal communities are also affected, with reports children as young as 10 years old are being stripsearched.

"I am hopeful that an independent review will change police attitudes and change policy," he said.

"It needs to change because at the moment the police are actively destroying their relationships with young people in NSW.

"I hope this campaign is the start of a strike back."



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