A "bombshell" audit has found an intensive police program that overwhelmingly targeted young Indigenous youth and led to repeated midnight check-ups was unreasonable, unjust and oppressive.
Once defended by a minister as "a world-leading crime prevention initiative", the Suspect Target Management Program aimed to proactively engage, disrupt and divert potential recidivists in NSW.
However, the state's police watchdog has found a revolving door of ill-advised officers frequently became highly intrusive in a child's life, with some acting unlawfully and most ignoring complex needs.
That and other factors made the practice "unreasonable, unjust, oppressive or improperly discriminatory in its effect on children and young people", the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission concluded on Monday.
Its 15-month-long audit follows findings in recent years that NSW Police had been unlawfully strip-searching juveniles and were failing to use anti-terrorism powers correctly.
"This is a bombshell report," Public Interest Advocacy Council chief executive Jonathon Hunyor said.
"Police have been exposed for acting unlawfully in their harassment of young people under the (program)."
In the face of the watchdog proposing a finding of agency maladministration, NSW Police ended the program with juveniles.
It plans to replace the adult program in December with an "enhanced process", inviting involvement from the watchdog.
But a coalition of legal organisations and academics warned police could not be trusted to develop a replacement program without oversight from legal and community groups.
"The research is clear that therapeutic community-led solutions best support children's needs and lead to positive outcomes for families and for crime rates, not over-policing," UNSW criminology senior lecturer Vicki Sentas said.
The NSW Police suspect targeting program had already been modified after the commission in 2020 highlighted patterns of targeting that "had the insignia of being unreasonable, unjust, or oppressive".
But "disappointingly", the commission found most officers did re-train but little had changed in the way police used the program on young people.
Some police records lacked detail about the legal basis for interactions and other records suggested police acted unlawfully.
The targeting of a juvenile offender with an acquired brain injury was solely focused on disruptive tactics, including an instruction to search the boy whenever seen by police.
Officers following that "clearly unreasonable" instruction would have likely been acting unlawfully, the watchdog noted.
Police interacted with the boy 110 times in a year, searching him twice on the same day four times, but took 10 months to recommend officers consider his cognitive impairment.
Another boy, aged 17 and living in out-of-home care, was subjected to 65 visits by police in five months, including four in one day.
Long criticised by legal groups for punishing people on the assumption they might one day commit a crime, then-police minister David Elliott sang the program's praises in 2020 after data suggested the likelihood of some crimes fell in the first year a person was placed on a management plan.
"The results are outstanding and certainly place the Suspect Target Management Plan program as a world-leading crime prevention initiative," Mr Elliott said at the time.
Some 48 per cent of youth subjected to the program across a six-month period in 2021 were Indigenous.
The commission found the police force did not seek to understand why there was a disproportionately high representation of young Indigenous people selected for targeting or take steps to reduce the over-representation.
Police also failed to conduct rigorous evidence-based evaluations to assess the success, or otherwise, of the use of the program on an individual.
The watchdog acknowledged effective policing of young people was a complex community concern but said its analysis showed the surveillance program "was not the answer".
NSW Police said it was committed to continued improvement and was engaging with at-risk youth in line with its three-year youth strategy.
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Australian Associated Press