Policing at Mardi Gras events ‘intensive and aggressive’, report finds

Alex Thompson By Alex Thompson Jun18,2024
Mardi Gras should be a celebration but a study into 2023 pride events suggests heavy-handed policing is still casting a dark shadow over festivities.

Policing at three Sydney World Pride and Mardi Gras events last year was found to be “intensive and aggressive”, with invasive questioning as well as “humiliating and potentially unlawful searches”, the researchers concluded.

A total police force of 200 officers was deployed for drug detection at the three parties and most charges were for supply rather than possession.
Researchers from UNSW Sydney, the University of Sydney and the University of Newcastle combed through police reports and observations made by Fair Play volunteers who attend such events to educate people about their legal rights.

The findings have sparked fresh calls from the Inner City Legal Centre, which commissioned the report, for an end to drug dog use and fewer police at future events.

People stand holding banners

A group called “Pride in Protest” carry a banner as 200 floats and thousands of people take part in the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade in Sydney, Saturday, March 2024. Source: AAP / Rick Rycroft

‘Visibly distressed’

Katie Green, a lawyer from the centre, said many partygoers – including Fair Play members themselves – were shaken after interacting with police.
Searches, including strip searches, took up to an hour and left people visibly distressed, she said.
Associate professor Vicki Sentas from UNSW Law and Justice was also struck by the level of disruption and distress.

“People being visibly kind of upset and quite rattled by the intimidating tactics, which, you know, only harms police-community relations,” she told AAP.

People in costume perform a dance

Participants take part in the 46th annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade on Oxford Street in Sydney, Saturday, March 2024. Source: AAP / Paul Braven

From the police brutality at the first Sydney Mardi Gras in 1978 to the assault of teenager Jamie Jackson Reed at the 2013 parade, the event has a long and complicated relationship with law enforcement.

The issue came under fresh scrutiny following the decision of Mardi Gras organisers to in this year’s parade, in light of the alleged murders of two gay men by a serving NSW Police officer.

Sentas said some gains had been made in the relationship between NSW Police and the LGBTQI community, including the use of gay and lesbian liaison officers.

“But there’s this parallel universe then when you’ve got the drug policing operations engaging in sort of aggressive, unnecessary over-policing at events after the parade,” she said.
A NSW Police spokesperson said the organisation “worked extensively” with Sydney World Pride organisers and a range of government and non-government stakeholders throughout the 17-day event.

“A range of strategies were utilised which ensured the community was able to enjoy the event safely and securely,” they said.

Questionable practices

While Sentas stressed it was unclear if all searches made at the events were unlawful, the study was able to establish a pattern that pointed to questionable use of drug detection dogs to justify searches.
Prior studies have found drug detection dogs to be an unreliable indicator of drug possession, and while police are still allowed to use them, the law explicitly prevents them from using a “sniff” as passing the test of “reasonable suspicion” needed to conduct a search.

Jumping straight from drug dog indications to searches is unlawful and police reports suggest this occurred in at least a few instances.

What was more prevalent was police using drug dog indication to then begin coercive questioning, suggesting police were adapting their techniques to circumnavigate the sniffer dog rule.

Arbitrary lines of questioning were used, the researchers found, including asking if friends had taken illicit drugs or if they knew if drugs were being taken into the venue or not.

Study co-author Louise Boon-Kuo from the University of Sydney said the methods to used to instigate a search raised questions about legality.
“We found that police practice shows misunderstanding of the limits of police power to search and strip search,” Boon-Kuo said.
“In fact, police records and observer accounts show that search was at times triggered by factors that police policy, Law Enforcement Conduct Commission investigations, statute, or the courts have said are unreliable, such as drug dog indication even when coupled with a nervous demeanour of the person.”

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Alex Thompson

By Alex Thompson

Alex is an award-winning journalist with a passion for investigative reporting. With over 15 years of experience in the field, Alex has covered a wide range of topics from politics to entertainment. Known for in-depth research and compelling storytelling, Alex's work has been featured in major news outlets around the world.

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2 thoughts on “Policing at Mardi Gras events ‘intensive and aggressive’, report finds”
  1. Mardi Gras should be a time of celebration, but the heavy-handed and aggressive policing at the events is clearly overshadowing the festivities. The invasive questioning and humiliating searches conducted by a total police force of 200 officers are unjust and potentially illegal. It’s troubling that most charges were for supply rather than possession. The report’s findings highlight the urgent need to reevaluate the approach to policing at these events and consider alternatives to drug detection methods that cause unnecessary distress.

  2. Many partygoers, including Fair Play members themselves, were shaken after interacting with police. Searches, including strip searches, took up to an hour and left people visibly distressed.

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