COVID-19 Policing in the Pandemic: FINAL REPORT

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The final report by the Covidpolicing coalition is now available here.(PDF)

This website covidpolicing.org.au collated people’s interactions with police during COVID-19 pandemic from April to August 2020.

This report analyses 90 incident reports submitted by individuals of their Covid-19 policing experiences that were recorded on the COVID-19 Policing website between April 6 and August 1, 2020. Reports were received from all states and territories apart from the ACT, but the majority (71%) originated from Victoria, where most of the participating organisations were based.
Almost all the reports concerned complaints about police behaviour.

A national team of academics then analysed the reports and identified the following key themes:

  • Tensions between the objectives of Covid-19 policing and reported impacts on health Covid-19 policing had adverse effects on people’s exposure to infection – either through directions to places that were enclosed or, in some protests, more crowded; and through police failure to maintain social distance in interactions with individuals. Many of those submitting reports to the website also described how Covid-19 policing had affected their health – it reduced their access to health services; it resulted in immediate and subsequent psychological distress; and some people reported the ongoing impact of policing to be a barrier to their involvement in activities that supported their well-being such as exercise.
  • Concerns about discriminatory policing on the basis of disability, age or race
    It was significant that there were 21 occurrences in which the complainant reported feeling discriminated against either on the grounds of race/ ethnicity, disability, age or gender, or sometimes a combination of these grounds. Many of these complaints emerged from police intervention while individuals were resting while exercising, an approach which discriminates against people with mobility-based and other forms of disability as well as older people.
  • Concerns about police not physically distancing
    A prominent complaint was that police did not physically distance themselves from the public, by standing too close or not wearing masks. Individuals expressed dismay, unease, and strong upset at police not maintaining physical distancing from each other and the public. Concern with the health risk of policing escalated when police confronted individuals in circumstances regarded as unnecessary, thereby increasing the risk of accompanying exposure through unnecessary physical proximity.
  • Concerns relating to policing and legal uncertainty
    Unsurprisingly, many complainants perceived Covid-19 policing to be unfair because of the uncertainty of the applicable rules at a particular time and place – whether because of the absence of signs about park closures, or inconsistent messaging between state governments and police officers. Some complainants believed police had applied the law incorrectly, others shared their expectation that police know and be able to advise on the legality of various activities under Covid-19 restrictions. It is significant that 61.4% of complaints believed that the police intervention had been unreasonable. This raises the likely possibility that a proportion of police move on directions, searches and fines may be unlawful.
  • Complaints about the policing of protest
    There were numerically few reports concerning the Covid-19 policing of protest, but these reports were significant in illustrating a continuity with controversy over police crowd control techniques, as well as the particular ramifications of policing protests in the pandemic. Complainants were concerned about police breach of social distancing requirements and also contested the legitimacy of police restrictions on socially distant assemblies such as car cavalcades.

Citation: Boon-Kuo, L, Sentas, V, Weber, L (2021) COVID-19 Policing in the Pandemic:
Analysis of Reports Submitted to the COVID-19 Policing in Australia Coalition (Kensington:
Flemington & Kensington Legal Centre).
Report Authors: Louise Boon-Kuo (University of Sydney Law School), Vicki Sentas (UNSW,
Faculty of Law and Justice), Leanne Weber (Canberra Law School).
Research assistance and contributions: Jennifer Keene-McCann, Alec Brodie, Meg Randolph, Dylan Goldsworthy, Sophie L’Estrange.

BACKGROUND

On 25 January 2020 Victorian Health Authorities confirmed the first case of Covid-19 in Australia. By the end of March all states and territories as well as the Commonwealth of Australia had passed Covid-19 related laws. State and Territory governments remained responsible for the operational aspects of public health and security measures within their jurisdiction, and it is these laws and policing that form the focus of this report. State and territory laws created new
criminal offences and expanded police authority to issue fines or charge and created considerable confusion about what conduct was permitted. At various times it has been an offence to leave home without a lawful excuse and for more than two people to gather in public. It was in this context that a coalition of legal and human rights advocacy organisations formed the Covid-19 Policing Project (the ‘Project’) over common concern about the expansion of police authority to enforce new public health laws in the pandemic.

The coalition included the Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre Police Accountability
Project, Liberty Victoria, Amnesty International, Community Legal Centres Australia, the Grata Fund, Melbourne Activist Legal Support, Border Crossing Observatory, Digital Rights Watch, Flat Out, Fitzroy Legal Service, Public Interest Advocacy Centre, and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.

The Covid-19 Policing website was developed to monitor the everyday impact of policing during the Covid-19 pandemic in Australia. The website enabled individuals to report Covid-19 related experiences of police contact by filling out an incident report form. The coalition also provided regular updates (‘round-ups’) about Covid-19 policing drawn from the incidents reported to the website and from publicly available information.


Have you been stopped by police or had any interaction with police regarding COVID?

This collaborative project aims to document incidents, reports, and examples from members of the public concerning COVID-19 policing, for use in monitoring and reporting, as well as legal advocacy and accountability. It is run by a group of legal and human rights advocacy organisations, backed up by a network of policing academics with a coordinator in each state.
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