The over-policing of young people, badged as proactive crime prevention, is oppressive, inefficient, and unjust, says a socio-legal researcher from UNSW.
Travis is a 14-year-old Aboriginal child* who lives in rural NSW. He has been convicted of aggravated burglary and possessing stolen credit cards used exclusively to buy food. He has a history of larceny and goods suspected of being stolen in custody, but he has predominantly been cautioned for his offending.
He was stopped and searched by police up to three times a week for months, constantly monitored in public, and asked to move on from the basketball courts, the oval or the shopping centre. This unwarranted and sustained police attention makes it difficult for him to be in public.
Travis is believed to have been on a NSW Police suspect targeted management plan (STMP) since he was 13. The STMP is a pre-emptive policing strategy that targets people deemed at risk of repeat and future offending with intensive surveillance and coercive police interactions, such as stop-and-search and home visits.
It is disproportionately used against young people (under 25 years old) and Aboriginal people, increasing costly contact with the criminal justice system, says Dr Vicki Sentas, a socio-legal researcher from UNSW Law & Justice.
“The STMP is designed to ‘disrupt’ – a counterinsurgency term – its targets in their daily lives; it’s a form of police terror used against children as young as ten, despite there being no evidence to suggest the purpose or effect of the STMP is preventing future crimes."
Dr Vicki Sentas
“It causes unjustifiable and disproportionate impacts on young people like Travis that undermine key objectives of young people’s interactions with the criminal justice system, such as diversion [to community support services] and therapeutic justice [attending to the individual as well as the issues involved in a case].”
Dr Sentas researches how marginalised communities experience state power. She witnessed the overpolicing of Pacific Island and Aboriginal communities growing up in the far north of Bjelke-Peterson’s Queensland. Abuse of state powers has become a common thread through her activism, legal practice and research.
She was the lead author and principal investigator of the Policing Young People in NSW: A study of the Suspect Targeting Management Plan report (2017) that exposed the STMP, a program that has been in operation since 2000, yet shrouded in secrecy.
The Youth Justice Coalition study, conducted in partnership with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, examined how the STMP is used in relation to children and young people, their experiences of it, and its impact on their interactions with police and criminal justice.
“The lack of publicly available information and the absence of oversight and scrutiny of STMP operational procedures raises serious questions about its nature and validity as a policing practice,” she says.
“It does not address or intervene into the causes of youth offending. We have evidence-based community programs that address structural problems, such as poverty and other social inequities, that contribute to crime and recidivism. Instead, it encourages poor police practice.”
The study sparked an inquiry by police watchdog, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), that found the STMP to be “a troubling grey zone” outside of the law. The LECC’s interim report, Operation Tepito (2020), corroborated Dr Sentas’s research, finding STMP targeting introduced unacceptable risks of bias and led to unreasonable, unjust and oppressive interactions for young ‘targets’.
The report called for tighter internal police practices, improved records and additional training as well as an internal review to assess its risks and provide evidence of its efficacy and appropriateness as a policing tool for children and young people.
It also noted the need for referral to police officers trained in youth policing strategies and the increased participation of youth and school liaison officers, Aboriginal community liaison officers in the case of Aboriginal children and young people, where possible.
The STMP can generate and compound poor police-community relations and undermine well-being, Dr Sentas says. “Historically, police were instrumental in the separation of Aboriginal peoples from country, culture and language,” she says. “The STMP contributes to the stigmatisation, criminalisation and traumatisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and furthers their disproportionate contact with police.”
Overpolicing young people leads to poor criminal justice outcomes, including increased likelihood of being in remand, and further contact with the criminal justice system, she says.
“The STMP is detecting minor offences, such as drug possession [not drug trafficking],” she says. “In some cases, the very fact of being on an STMP is being used by police to justify searching young people, a practice the LECC agreed is unlawful.”
This is an ineffective and unjust use of public resources, she says. “The STMP encourages punitive, unlawful and repressive overpolicing. It’s based on a model of police harassment that has no place in society.”
The LECC’s final report is due for release in late 2023. “We’re calling on the LECC to end the STMP for young people” she says. “The STMP is oppressive, it causes egregious harm, and it is not fit-for-purpose. It can’t be reformed or perfected, it simply needs to be abolished.”
The systemic use of strip-searching by NSW Police represents another abuse of state power, revealed in Dr Sentas’s research. “We need urgent law reform to provide clear guidance on conducting this procedure, both in the field and in custody,” she says.
“A strip search is the most invasive form of personal search available to police without a court order. Yet over the twelve years leading up to 2019, our research found an almost twentyfold increase in strip searches.”
Together with co-author Dr Micheal Grewcock, Dr Sentas conducted the first legal study on strip searches in 2019, including the use of strip searches at music festivals. Commissioned by Redfern Legal Centre for their Safe and Sound campaign, the Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police report found police systematically use strip searches unlawfully, highlighting opportunities for law reform. The research received bipartisan interest as well as extensive media attention.
“We saw significant public response to young girls at music festivals detained by police and told to strip unnecessarily,” she says. “Typically, strip searches involve being required to strip naked in front of police officers, who often give the direction to “squat and cough”, bend over or otherwise contort the body. Those experiences can be intrusive, humiliating and harmful.”
The report supported a LECC inquiry into NSW Police strip search practices released in 2020. The LECC report found strip searches are often conducted unlawfully, confirming Dr Sentas’s research.
“It’s a form of sexual violence by the state. In a non-policing context, having to perform such non-consensual acts would constitute a serious assault. Parliament needs to urgently legislate to limit this dehumanising practice.”
Dr Vicki Sentas
Strip searches are reserved for “serious and urgent” circumstances; their use at music festivals, for example, for routinely checking if people possess drugs is unfounded, she says. “Rather than saving lives – the tough on drugs approach to policing – our findings reveal such searches are doing little to tackle serious drug crime.”
The LECC report also confirmed NSW Police have paid little regard to the legal requirement that a suitable adult be present when a child is strip-searched. “This reflects a wider failure to acknowledge the vulnerabilities of children in this situation,” Dr Sentas says.
The report recommended NSW Police consolidate more than 100 different police guidelines into one consistent guideline. “But these issues need to be resolved through law reform, not left to the police,” she says.
“We need to fix the authorising environment, make the laws tighter and clearer, to define the thresholds of the use of strip searches. For example, the law should be changed to require a court order before a child can be strip-searched.”
The research cast a light on the systemic use of strip searches as a form of power during interactions with Aboriginal communities, she says. “Music festivals brought this issue to white middle-class families,” she says. “But our research shows that use of strip searches on Aboriginal people, including children, in the street, in the back of paddy wagons and in their homes is longstanding. It is racialized, unjust and damaging.”
The STMP and strip searches reflect broader problems with the role of police, she says. “We need to shrink the footprint of police powers and find alternatives to address social problems.”
In the meanwhile, Sentas says two opportunities for change should be closely watched: the LECC’s final report on the STMP to be released later in 2023, and the results of Redfern Legal Centre’s class action on strip searches currently on foot.
*At the time of the Youth Justice Coalition study