CovidPolicing Weekly Roundup #1

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Monday 13 April, 2020

At the end of its first week of operation this new website has had 28 reports of inappropriate or concerning police interactions.  With publicity for the site only now starting to build we expect this number of reports to grow. Reports were received from Queensland (1), Tasmania (1) South Australia (1), NSW (5) and Victoria (20).

Each week we’ll do a ‘round-up’ of the reports we’ve received with a bit of analysis and commentary.  Some reports are anonymous, some are first hand accounts and others are witness statements. As the numbers and range of reports grow our picture of what is happening across the country will become more detailed.

Reports received already reflect what many have seen reported in the news or on social media already since State of Emergency powers were declared throughout Australia on or around March 15th.   From the mundane inconvenience of being questioned by police outside their house or accosted whilst exercising, to more serious police incursions, searches or arrests, numerous reports tell of interactions with police that were unpleasant, clumsy, like being ‘interrogated’ or have left them feeling stressed, anxious or more fearful to go out again.  

In summary, the reports reflect many of the social and psychological harms of policing that are very rarely obvious to police commanders and the wider community, but are very commonly experienced by communities that receive comparatively high levels of policing.

Summary of Reports

A woman driving with her daughter in Eltham reported being followed by a police car on the way to visit her son’s grave and said I felt intimidated by the obvious stalking by police. This behaviour could only be described as harassment.”

One person from South Australia who had been granted an essential travel form after returning from Victoria, was left “confused and frustrated” after three police officers arrived at his home and confiscated his essential travel form and ordered him to self quarantine for 14 days, without giving any explanation or reason as to why the confiscation had happened.

A family in Mitcham, Victoria told how they were outside their home when questioned by police:

“My wife was sitting on our small fence, our daughter was on the footpath playing with water making footprints on the cement and preparing to draw some rainbows for the rainbow trail and I was on a picnic blanket on the grass on the nature strip. The police drove past and stopped in the middle of the road (holding up traffic behind them) to interrogate us as to why we out the front of our house instead of in our backyard. I explained that there was no sun in our backyard and that my daughter was drawing on the pavement with chalk to add to the local rainbow trail. …. I informed him again that there was no sun, pavement or grass in our backyard and that if we could be in our backyard we would’ve. He finally drove on, the interaction only lasted a few minutes. …I couldn’t believe they would just stop in the middle of the road like that and hold everyone up. I just wanted them to move on so everyone could move on. We were making sure we were adhering to social distancing protocols. It was really unpleasant being interrogated like that.

A woman, a professional runner, from Ferntree Gully in Victoria, reported that she had driven about a kilometer from her home to the nearest grass oval for training.

“4km into my jog, a policewoman hopped out of her car and pulled me up. She asked if I had driven there? I said yes. I asked why? She said driving is not permitted to exercise. She also said I can finish my lap, but then go home. She didn’t even ask how far I had driven. Exercise is permitted and so is driving there! I was running alone!”

According to the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, leaving your immediate neighbourhood to undertake exercise is permissible if people use ‘common sense’ and don’t travel any further than they have to. (Stay at home direction – frequently asked questions, 12 April 2020)

Another women had driven “15km through uninhabited coastal scrub from our residence to take my 2 children for a bush walk at our local beach” [East Gippsland, Victoria] when she was issued with a warning by a Fisheries officer that “I am not to drive to my place of exercise”.

When asked is she was actually breaking the law the Fisheries officer advised her to check with local police.  The officer took the woman’s’ detail to forward to police despite being unsure if any law had been broken.  She reported the experience as “clumsy and discriminatory.”

Similarly, a man in Aspendale was walking late at night when he describes being stopped by two plain-clothes police officers who asked why he was out at night, including a female police officer who began “yelling berating me asking why I was out of the house.”

“Neither officer identified themselves or told me why I was stopped. They asked me if I went walking at night often and then proceeded to ask other invasive questions about my job and became annoyed that I didn’t have identification even though I don’t carry it when walking. I provided my details and they [after checking with superiors] …advised me to go home, which is where I was headed. Two minutes later I arrived home as I had intended, feeling incredibly shaked and more anxious than when I had left the house. I am now afraid of leaving the house for exercise and my condition as a type 1 diabetic may deteriorate because of this, ultimately making me more susceptible to COVID19.”

A man with severe acquired brain injury was out exercising in a park in Northcote, Victoria, with his carer when police approached him.  The man’s carer reported that he is unable to exercise by himself (or go out by himself- he has a companion card) and due to very limited mobility can only walk short distances without a rest.

“i sat down to have a rest on a seat. then two cops came along. they asked us what were we doing. …my carer [said] we were exercising. the cops said we have to move on and we can’t “just be lounging around”. It upset me to be questioned by the police, because they are a bit scary. the cops asked me a question, i can’t remember what. I didn’t answer because i have lots of trouble talking. I was a bit embarrassed that i couldn’t talk, i thought i might get in trouble from the police. I was very relieved when they walked away.”   

The man’s carer added:

“It is obvious from looking at him that he has mobility issues as he has a walking stick. It is highly discriminatory to expect all people who are exercising to be moving the whole time. People with a physical disability may very well need periods of rest between bouts of exercise and would need to sit on a seat (as [my client] does). For the police to call this “lounging around” is very inappropriate.

Several reports pointed to the policing of people sitting or being out alone and being asked to ‘move-on’ by police.

“My friend who is terminally ill with cancer was sitting in his car at the head land (Coffs Harbour Jetty) was given a move on order. The irony was there was a market just across the harbour where there were hundreds of people”

A women in Queensland reported being pulled over by a police officer who do not observe any social distancing:  

“His face and body was approximately 30cm away from my face while seated in my [van]. His hands were also inside my vehicle resting on my door trim. I didn’t feel safe to ask him to step back as he was already condescending and not interested in anything I had to say. I didn’t want to further agitate him by asking him to stand back. I felt unsafe and he should have observed social distancing.”

Numerous advocacy and human rights groups have expressed concerns about how policing would impact upon those people least able to safely self-isolate.

A nurse, working a free health clinic in Launceston in Tasmania told how a homeless woman who sleeps either in cheap hotels or a backpackers or her car, was out walking a friend’s dog. The homeless woman was told by police to “get back to her hotel” and abandon the dog.  The woman refused to comply and was “thrown in gaol for a night and is now facing charges.”

Another person in Leichardt, NSW witnessed:  

“two police officers stop two young boys (approximately 12-years-old), both Aboriginal. They then searched the boys clothing and bags. They found one bong and a pair of scissors, but no illicit substances. They confiscated the bong citing it as “drug paraphernalia”. They then told the boys that they were in breach of social distancing laws. One of the boys asked why that was as he thought you were allowed to be out of the house and walking with one other person. The police said this was not true and that they needed a reason to be out of the house and that they did not believe the boys had a fair excuse. The police took down they boys’ details and said they would each be issued with warnings for the breach of social distancing rules.”

Policing of a protest event

We received several reports from people who were fined or threatened with fines at the car cavalcade at the Mantra hotel in Melbourne’s inner north suburb of Preston on Friday 10 April.

“I drove to the car park at Harvey Norman Preston to donate supplies to the refugees imprisoned in the Mantra. Multiple police cars arrived at the meeting point and one blocked my car from exiting. She exited her car and came to my car window, not practicing social distancing. She took my name and address and said I would receive a ticket in the mail for violating the new laws. I told her I had come to the Mantra to donate toilet paper, but she claimed that this would not qualify for an exemption on compassionate grounds. I was ordered to go home and not to join the car cavalcade protest.”

Another from the same event reported that:

“Drove around Mantra twice, on second loop again stopped, interviewed by an Officer in a mask. Told I would receive a fine in the mail and ordered to go home. My son was also told he would receive a fine.
While I was being interviewed
[by a police member]  not wearing a mask approached my 22yo son in passenger seat, asking him to lower the window and interviewed him from less than 1m. I have lodged a complaint about [the police member] exposing my son unnecessarily.

There was no contact with anyone outside my household until police asked me to open car window, and I intended to not leave the vehicle.

The policing of this protest event has been widely reported and has raised concerns that public health restrictions being used inappropriately against an activity that was conducted with social distancing measures in place.  Similar car-cavalcade events held in NSW only a few days before were not restricted by NSW police.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) had earlier reported on this event in a Statement of Concern that was published here.  

One person raised concerns regarding the use of number plate recognition technology and cameras by NSW Police to ensure people adhere to social distancing measures over the Easter long weekend.  We also note this week, that Western Australia Police received $14.8 million in funding for 100 automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras to be deployed “immediately” to enforce travel restrictions that are intended to ensure citizens stay at home to limit the spread of coronavirus.

The use of number plate recognition technology, which links personal registration details with location and travel data provides a significant population-wide surveillance capability with wide ranging applications.  COVID-19 restrictions provide the first known time this technology has been applied by police to track population movements beyond the detection of driving or vehicle offences. 

What happens to the reports?

Some of the reports cited above have been referred to legal support or local complaint bodies. Others have been referred, with their consent, to media outlets to tell their account more publically.  Some reports will be followed up for more information.

All accounts will be collated and analysed over time to enable more robust reporting on the policing and enforcement of these emergency public health powers.  We hope reports will continue to provide valuable insight into how this unique period of public health policing is impacting the lives of people who experience it.

Covidpolicing.org.au is collaborative project is run by legal and human rights advocacy organisations, backed up by a network of policing academics around Australia.  The project and its network is still in development as the site is rolled out.

We thank all people who have taken the time to make a report and to all those who have contributed, supported, shared or promoted this project over its first week of operation.

For more information about the project please see: https://covidpolicing.org.au/about/

If you would like to contact any of the partners in this project, you can reach us by e-mail at [email protected].

Thank you.

The team at Covidpolicng.org.au

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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