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Aboriginal Legal Service issues warning on "knee-jerk" knife laws in NSW

Dechlan Brennan -

The peak Indigenous legal service in new South Wales has criticised new "rushed" knife laws in the state, arguing they will give police "extraordinary" powers to search people in public and will cause harm to Aboriginal people and other marginalised groups.

Last week, the NSW government proposed laws allowing police to stop and search people for weapons - without reasonable suspicion or a warrant - in a move designed to crack down on youth crime.

In the wake of several high-profile knife incidents, including the Bondi Junction attack which resulted in six people being killed, Premier Minns said the new legislation was "common-sense".

"Our communities are still in mourning, but it's essential that we step up to take immediate action to send a clear message that New South Wales will simply not accept these kinds of crimes," he said.

The so-called "wanding" powers are already in place in Queensland and allow police to use hand-held metal detectors - without warrants - in designated night precincts, as well as around transit hubs.

In NSW, this will also be extended to shopping centres and nightlife and entertainment precincts.

The powers can be used by police "in circumstances where a relevant weapons offence/knife crime have occurred within the past six months," the government said, and will last for 12 hours with an option to extend.

However, the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT has criticised the laws, with chief executive Karly Warner warning that giving police additional powers to stop and search will result in Aboriginal people being disproportionately and unfairly targeted.

She said it would also negatively impact the health of community members by forcing them into contact with carceral systems that "put them in danger".

Police Minister Yasmin Catley said the proposed legislation was about keeping people safe.

"These reforms will give police improved tools to quickly detect concealed knives and take action before a potential perpetrator has the chance to use them," she said.

"This sends a strong signal that we are committed to tackling violent knife crime in our community."

A 2022 Griffith University review into "wanding" powers in Queensland found whilst it may help with knife detection in certain areas, "there is no evidence yet that wanding deters knife carrying."

"There is also no evidence yet that wanding has led to reduced violent or other crime, but it has led to an increase in detected drug offences," the report said, "which can increase the flow of minor offenders into formal criminal justice processes."

Ms Warner said the laws would not have prevented incidents like the tragedy at Bondi Junction, and instead would only force more Indigenous people and vulnerable communities into contact with the police.

"Too often we see Aboriginal people – often children – speak up against police targeting and end up with police charging them with a trifecta of offensive language, resist arrest, and assault police, without having done anything wrong in the first place," Ms Warner said.

NSW Greens justice spokesperson Sue Higginson said the response was "knee-jerk" and came as knife-related crimes had declined by more than 50 per cent over the last 20 years.

"There is a serious risk that these new powers for the NSW Police will worsen the outcomes for those in the community that are already experiencing proactive policing and racial profiling," Ms Higginson said.

"The over representation of First Nations young people in police statistics is driven by the over policing of those young people, something that will become worse with new powers to stop and search."

NSW police were forced to abandon their "highly intrusive" Suspect Targeting Management Program (STMP) last year after a watchdog ruled its use was potentially unlawful.

The Law Enforcement Conduct Commission found "the consistent overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people as STMP targets indicated the ongoing discriminatory effect of the policy".

A new report found powers given to police during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in fines that were "disproportionately issued to marginalised groups".

These included Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children with cognitive impairments, and children experiencing socio-economic challenges, homelessness, or unsafe home environments.

Ms Warner said police discretion has been "directly linked to the historic all-time high in Aboriginal imprisonment in NSW".

"Police disproportionately subject our communities to punitive practices like strip searches and bail checks, and disproportionately charge us rather than opting for warnings or cautions," she said.

"Closing the Gap is everyone's responsibility, but right now, the NSW Government is making choices that are widening the gap instead. This should anger and concern anyone who wants to see an equal and prosperous future for all Australians."

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