Heavy-Handed Police Raid Sydney Nightclub, but Find No Drugs and Press No Charges

NSW authorities continue their assault on Sydney’s nightlife. This time the police raided Club 77 in Darlinghurst. At around 11.30 pm last Saturday night, a group of NSW police officers, with a sniffer dog, entered the nightclub and began searching clientele and staff.

Club owner Matty Bickett broke the news of the police raid in a Facebook post that went viral on Sunday. He reported that the officers made no arrests and found no drugs. Bickett wrote that the “over the top policing” had left him with “a bad taste” in his mouth.

“We had 15 police just storm the venue, out of nowhere. There was probably about 100 to 120 kids in the club. We’re only 180 capacity,” Bickett explained. He went on to say that the officers began strip searching people, some in public and others in the toilets.

The police prevented people from entering the club, as well as dragging others out.

Strip searches and a lack of respect

Bickett was particularly upset that the headline act – who’d flown in from Melbourne to DJ – was himself strip searched and then barred from re-entering the venue. “They wouldn’t let him back in the club, which is pretty terrible PR,” he told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

According to Bickett, the police didn’t want to talk to him, or his business partner, who’s the licensee. The officers didn’t serve them with any paperwork, or explain the legalities of what they were doing.

Some club-goers reported being searched as they were making their way to the venue from the train station that night. The officers carried out strip searches in the toilet cubicles in the club. And one man was allegedly tasered in the back alley.

After the raid, the police left, only to return about two hours later minus the dog. They began removing punters from the club that they believed were intoxicated.

Cracking down on nightlife

The raid on 77 is part of a new policing approach, Bickett said he’d been told. He explained that the Saturday night incident is to become “pretty standard” police behaviour, and the venue is “to expect more of this.”

But the club owner can’t understand why, as the atmosphere of the venue has changed over recent years. They’ve recently renovated and are catering for an older crowd these days.

“We weren’t doing anything dodgy. We just run a business,” Bickett said, and added that many of the venues in the local area have shut down due to the effects of the lockout laws. However, his club has “managed to stay on,” since the lockout and last drink restrictions were introduced into Sydney’s CBD back in February 2014.

More of the same

This is not the first time NSW police have taken a heavy-handed approach to Sydney’s nightclubs. Last December, about 40 officers stormed Candy’s Apartment in Kings Cross. At the time, the police imposed a 72-hour temporary closure order on the venue.

The raid took place after a three month investigation into drug supply in the Kings Cross area under Strike Force Roby. On the night of that raid, a 21-year-old man was arrested outside the club for allegedly being in possession of 60 MDMA capsules.

Charlie Mancuso, the owner of the nightclub, said at the time that police had to show they were doing something otherwise they were going to lose their jobs. He called on patrons to fight for their rights and show their displeasure.

Increasing the harms of drug use

Taking drug detection dogs into late-night venues and music festivals is a dangerous approach for police to take. Harm reduction experts have long pointed out that using sniffer dogs actually leads people to partake in hazardous drug taking behaviours.

These practices include preloading, which is when a person takes all of their drugs before arriving at an event to avoid detection. And another common practice is panic overdosing, when a person takes all of their drugs at once on seeing a drug dog.

The death of James Munro at Defqon 1 in 2013 is believed to have been a case of panic overdosing. The young man is said to have taken all his drugs at once on seeing a drug detection dog operation.

People attending nightclubs do partake in drugs. This is well-known. And walking sniffer dogs through venues late at night is only encouraging people to take dangerous quantities of any drugs they might possess, so as to avoid detection.

High Alert

Since late in April, Victoria police have taken a similar approach under Operation Safenight. On Saturday nights in Melbourne’s nightclub precincts, officers are currently using sniffer dogs, searching people and raiding venues.

In response to the police operation, the High Alert campaign has been set up to build public awareness about the approach police are taking, as well as providing legal advice to those who’ve been affected by police tactics.

High Alert is run by a group of harm reduction advocates, health practitioners and legal professionals. They’re concerned that the police operation is not only an attack on people’s civil liberties, but it’s also making Melbourne’s nightlife more dangerous.

An evidence-based approach

Victoria police launched the crackdown in response to the drug-related deaths of three people due to a deadly batch of MDMA that was being sold in Chapel Street nightclubs in January. The MDMA capsules were not pure. They’d been mixed with the more dangerous drug NBOMe.

However, the tried and tested way to reduce drug-related deaths is not more law enforcement. It’s pill testing – or drug checking – a method that’s been used in European countries for decades. It allows a drug taker to make an informed decision about what they’re about to ingest.

Drugs can be tested at booths at music festivals, or at a High Street service in a nightclub precinct. A trained professional uses laboratory equipment that allows them to tell the owner of the drugs what they’re made up of. And if they’re found to be dangerous, then the person can refrain from taking them.

Back at 77

Bickett and his business partner have been left wondering whether police are going to take any further steps in regards to Saturday night’s raid. “There’s been no discussion between us and them. They just come in and treat you like a criminal.” he said. “There was people in tears. It just doesn’t look good.”

“To have that on a Saturday night is a bit of a kick in the teeth, especially when they didn’t make any arrests or breach us,” Bickett concluded. “Haven’t got a fine. Haven’t got anything.”

Paul Gregoire About Paul Gregoire
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on civil rights, drug law reform, gender and Indigenous issues. Along with Sydney Drug Lawyers, he writes for VICE and is the former news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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