Should Male Officers Be Allowed To ‘Pat-Down’ Search Women?

Should we allow male police and immigration officers to ‘pat-down’ search women who are suspected of terrorist acts?

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This issue has inevitably re-entered public consciousness, ever since an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) was passed in Parliament on Monday (19 Mar).

Member of Parliament Louis Ng even sought clarifications from Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah, as this change stirred up a “fair amount of concern” in Singaporeans.

Before we address whether it’s necessary, let’s first understand why this change was carried out in the first place.

What’s the current process?

Currently, women can only be searched by female police and immigration officers.

The amendments will give male officers the rights to search a woman, in “narrowly defined” and “specific circumstances”.

These are the 3 specific scenarios:

  1. The officer suspects the woman is involved in a terrorist act.
  2. The officer believes in good faith that the terrorist act is about to occur.
  3. The officer believes in good faith that a woman officer is unavailable to carry out a search within a reasonable time.

What kind of search?

A pat-down search, according to Channel NewsAsia that is.

In full view of other travellers, you’ll be subject to a pat-down by an officer – usually of your gender – with a metal-detecting wand first.

Then, the officer will run his or her hands across your body, to feel for forbidden items such as weapons, contraband and drugs.

Once the officer is satisfied, you’ll be able to continue through the gate.

We did a quick search of other pat-down searches conducted overseas.

For countries abroad, a pat-down search of a woman would mean something to the tune of this.

A “pat-down” search at Sacramento Airport, California
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Do take note, however, that a pat-down search is not standard procedure for all air travellers.

Only when the alarm is triggered after a passenger passes through the metal detector, would you normally be asked to move aside for a pat-down.

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For obvious reasons, we can see why women would feel uncomfortable if a pat-down search like that was done by a male officer.

Of course, we’re not sure what the standard pat-down search protocol is for Singaporean immigration and police officers.

What’s practiced overseas may not exactly be what’s executed here.

What’s the rationale?

Why change the current system where a woman is searched by a woman?

For two reasons, apparently.

  1. To save time when a female officer is unavailable
  2. To counteract the potential loss of lives due to any delay

This makes sense if a female terrorist tries to buy time by asking for a female officer to search her, and exploits that interval to carry out the terrorist act.

Ms Indranee cemented her stance by saying,

There is a well-recorded history of the use of women in terror attacks. [emphasis ours]

She elaborated that some were “coerced” into their roles but “others have volunteered”.

Raising the following examples to make her case:

  • Female suicide bombers responsible for 230 attacks from 1985 to 2008
  • A 17-year-old female Tamil Tigers suicide bomber assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi
  • Boko Haram’s female suicide bombers killed 1,225 people

She mentioned that there’s “a perceived unwillingness on the part of security officers to search women”.

And brought up research to suggest that terror groups have repeatedly exploited “cultural taboo(s)” to gain “specific tactical advantages”.

Is there no other way?

Ms Indranee said that police will institute standard operating procedures to allow for a “strict regard to decency”.

They’ll seek to strike a balance between ensuring security and upholding the modesty of women who are searched.

We can’t help but wonder, however, if there are better ways of solving this security threat.

By hiring more female police and immigration officers, or allowing a woman the choice to request for a female officer to conduct the search.

A matter of consequence

As it stands, if a police or immigration officer suspects a woman “in good faith” and a woman officer is not immediately available, a female passenger will have to subject herself to a pat-down, regardless of whether she’s comfortable with the idea.

Worryingly, there seems to be no consequence for an unsuccessful search by a police officer.

If the pat-down search turns up nothing, and the woman is deemed an innocent civilian, will she get to lodge a complaint if she feels violated?

The costly price of freedom

Nobody, regardless of gender, race or religion, enjoys being subject to a body search by an officer while on holiday.

Especially if we’ve got nothing to hide but chewing gum.

Some may think it’s worthwhile to implement these changes at the expense of personal freedoms.

But as long as the threat of terrorism exists within and beyond our borders, this is the costly price we regular folk have to pay for our collective security.

While these measures may stave off potential attacks from female suicide bombers, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we may be overcompensating for our fear.

In which case, it’s almost like we’ve already let the terrorists in — inside our heads and hearts that is.

Featured image from FiveStarsAndAMoon.