CovidPolicing Weekly Roundup #2

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Monday 20thApril, 2020

Now in its second week of operation, the Covid Policing website has had and additional 32 reports concerning police interactions. Victoria had by far the highest number of reports at 25 (15 for inner and greater Melbourne and 10 for regional Victoria), New South Wales (4), Queensland (1) and Western Australia (2). 

A majority of people reported that they had a negative experience of their interactions with police, describing their interactions as: aggressive, interrogatory, intimidating, harassing, rude, very rude, unpleasant, nasty, forceful, not friendly, frightening.

People stated that after their interactions with police they were left feeling: singled out, treated unfairly, targeted, discriminated against, sad and hurt, angry, in disbelief, shocked, very traumatised, quite upset, scared.

Reports also bore out the degree of confusion about what the rules actually are and about inconsistent and unfair application of the rules. People felt they were treated unfairly when stopped while exercising and what they considered to be appropriate social distancing. There was a report of what a person described as “wide scale monitoring” with police conducting checks on a Melbourne road, stopping cars and scanning people’s licenses.

Amnesty International Australia and the Grata Fund called this week on State and Territory governments and all relevant bodies to publicly release  guidelines used by police to enforce COVID-19 social distancing  regulations. 

“While these reports concern us, what’s really alarming is the  potential for vulnerable people in our community to be unfairly  targeted. 

“It’s hard to understand the utility of harassing a homeless person  who doesn’t have the luxury of self isolation, or of picking on  Indigenous kids who are already grossly overrepresented in the prison  system. Grata Fund  Executive Director Isabelle Reinecke said.

We note that Victoria and Queensland have both announced a review process for all fines issues under these new powers. However, as reports to covidpolicing.org.au highlight, police interactions that do not result in a fine are far more common and can also be harmful and problematic even if the stop does not result in a fine.

As numerous commentators have pointed out, exercise and getting outside is particularly crucial for health and well-being. Interactions with police, especially where people are left feeling intimidated and fearful, only exacerbates the difficulties that people face. Reports this week highlight the ongoing concern about how vulnerable populations are impacted by the policing of COVID-19 regulations.

The reports this week again show that people who had not come to the attention of police before, are left feeling, “targeted”, “discriminated against”, “sad and hurt”, “disappointed”, “quite upset”.  An international student who, suffers “severe depression and anxiety” was fined and left feeling “very traumatised and shocked”.  Analysts have highlighted this as an indication that modes of intensive, ‘stop & account’ policing that is commonly experienced by low socio-economic, Indigenous or migrant communities has been extended through COVID-19 onto a greater range of the Australian public.

Whilst some incident reports did indicate or surmise that bias or discrimination may have been a factor in the police decision to approach them anecdotal reports alone will not determine if existing patterns of discriminatory policing are being replicated in this period of public health policing.    An analysis by journalist Osman Faruqi of data released by NSW Police reveals that a disproportionate number of fines in NSW have been issued in areas largely populated by Indigenous or migrant Australians.  These discrepancies across jurisdictions are concerning and we support calls for the uniform collection, release and independent analysis of stop and enforcement data by police across the country. Thorough  stop data analysis, combined with the public reporting of issues as facilitated through this website, will allow any discriminatory or disproportional application of these restrictions to be identified and halted. 

People reporting incidents have also raised concerns about the increased powers of police after the lockdown ends, “I worry these new powers of aggressive behaviour towards the public will continue after the shut down.”

The examples of inconsistent policing, vague definitions, poor attitude and manner, issuing fines without warnings, issuing move-on orders or fines when people are using common sense and social distancing, leads people to question the accountability and role of the police in monitoring the lockdown regulations. As one person who was warned by police stated: “The inconsistency shown by Victoria Police is eroding community confidence with some Officers taking the opportunity to turn a health issue into crime issue. The Police are spreading fear and anxiety in the community at a time where we need to be calm and rational.”

Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton (Vicpol) reportedly stated: “I am concerned that there continues to be an inconsistent approach from our members when enforcing the directives of the Chief Health Officer. This lack of discretion erodes public confidence in Victoria Police …”. 

This reflects an almost identical concern expressed in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons report which said police must stop overstepping their powers under new coronavirus laws in order to maintain public trust.

Finally, in light of the policing of the Good Friday refugee protest in Melbourne we welcome this statement by the UN special rapporteur GENEVA (14 April 2020) on the right to freedom of assembly and association that was released this week –  calling for states to uphold their human rights obligations in their COVID-19 responses.  

Summary of Reports

At Rye in Victoria a person went out with their 81 year old father to exercise:

Myself and my 81 year old Dad were going to take our dog to walk on the beach. We drove to the carpark to find that the beach was open but had been closed to dogs. We had not got out of the car and were about to leave when a police car with 2 young officers pulled in behind my car so I could not reverse. They called me over to their car and questioned what we were doing, I explained the above to him and he in a threatening manner asked why he shouldn’t give me a $1600 fine on the spot. I replied that we just wanted to go for a walk and because I was telling the truth. This officer then demanded I get in my car and go home, he then proceeded to follow us closely (on our bumper) down the road. Both myself and my Dad felt extremely intimidated and were both upset that a policeman could be so rude.

A woman reported that her stepfather is in Melbourne to get cancer treatment and staying in an Airbnb :  

On Saturday he was home alone, the police came into the property stalking around the side of the house and looking at him through the windows, scaring him. They did not knock at the door first, just went around the side of the house, like it was a stake out. Apparently someone (probably after seeing me visiting earlier) had reported to the police that he was having illegal air Bnb parties. They scared the hell out of an older sick man for no reason. They could of just asked.

At a Melbourne shopping centre:

A family of 3, (Mother, father and young infant child in pram) were at the shop. The father walked inside to go to the shop and make relevant purchases. The mother waited outside the shop doors with the baby and sat on a seat nearby the doors, observing social distancing of greater than 1.5m from others. Police approached the mother and told her to go inside the shop as it was not allowed for her to wait outside the shop

It was clear that the mother and child were acting safely by waiting outside and were forced into a more dangerous situation as a result of the Police intervention.

A couple went for a walk from home in Melton West and bumped into a friend who was running (and who lived in the same street) and they decided to walk together (keeping social distance) for the rest of the trip. 50 metres from their home they were stopped by police.

The police officer was rudeand I felt we were treated unfairly.

I deemed this unfair they fined us for social distancing breach but I can go to Kmart and or big w and just shopping centre in general and be in close contact with other people

The fine states three exercising nil boot camp so if I was a boot camp it’s fine to be together it just doesn’t make sense.

In St Leonards, Victoria a 64 year old woman was walking from the jetty to the car park after buying a take away coffee. The woman stopped to say hello to a friend who was walking past, they were 3 metres apart. At this time a female police officer was nearby and the woman was given a request to move on.

She was very unpleasant. Asked why I wasn’t moving. I said I thought a takeaway coffee was permitted. She said it was. Then she told me to get moving. She was nasty and forceful. I walked away in disbelief along the track past the playground

I felt sad and hurt that I was spoken down to by the officer. Even more so as I was being nice to her. I am 64 and have never had anything like that happen in my life.
 I worry these new powers of aggressive
behavior towards the public will continue after the shut down. I am not rough. We are well known business people.

A couple, who live in the Melbourne CBD, were on their way to shop at Woolworths in the CBD. They were motioned to stop by one of 3 police officers. The policewoman asked what was in a bag the woman was carrying and then asked to be shown the contents of the bag.

At this point they all just turned and walked off without saying anything. I got the impression that they may have realized they had over stepped the mark.

I don’t mind being asked why we are on the streets but it was not friendly and was more of an interrogation than fact finding. The fact that we were shopping for essentials was enough to know we had left the house for a valid reason. I don’t think asking to see in my bag was warranted either.

In another incident, a woman on a break from working at the hospital, sitting on a park bench in the Exhibition Gardens eating her lunch, was approached by two police officers and told to leave the park. The woman stated that there were men sitting on benches in the park who the police did not speak to. 

I felt discriminated against being an older woman. I also felt quite upset that i was prevented from having some time in fresh air, and the relative quiet of the park and was not able to have a half hour respite from the hospital. I am a woman. They ignored the men doing the same as me. I think they perceived me as being a compliant member of the public.
 I think they have quotas to fill. I also think they were new to this work. They did not stand 1.5m apart from each other.

In Shepparton a nurse was stopped by police whilst driving home from work and asked where she was going:  

My (valid) response was “Going home from work” (I’m a nurse).
 All of a sudden, Police changed tone, and claim I was speeding.

 No proof, just their word, whilst located where multiple speed zone changes occur.

The woman received a driving charge.

In Queensland two friends were going for hike up a mountain at Austinville for exercise. They parked in the parking areas and were approached by two police officers. One received a request to move on and the other a fine and was also arrested.

In Melbourne an international student who suffers “severe depression and anxiety” went to the St Kilda skate park to exercise. There was a sign that said it was temporarily closed, but because the basketball court next door and the beach was open (and full of people) the person thought that using the skate park would be ok.  In addition, there were only three people in the skate park, so social distancing was easy to do. Within a few minutes all three people were fined:

The male police said we were allowed to skate only outside of the skatepark. The female police was very rude and said we were getting a $1600 fine each.

I was very shocked after this event and feel very traumatised and have difficulty sleeping. I already suffer from mental illness and don’t have family or government support here in Australia. I don’t understand why there’s hundreds of people in the beach, hundreds of people in the Main Street and shopping centres, and people playing hockey next to the skatepark, and that’s ok, but if there’s only 3 people peacefully skating inside of a skatepark, we get a fine? Isn’t it better if we skate inside since there’s less people and we can social distance better? What’s the difference between skating inside and outside? How can the laws says we can exercise but at the same time not allowed to exercise? How can they open some places but close some places? How can we average people understand these confusing laws and how come we get fined for ignorance of confusing laws that was written few weeks ago? The police never explained to us what laws we broke, they just said ALL parks were closed hence we were getting a fine for using the skatepark!! We didn’t cause any troubles!!

As an international student I’m scared of so many things…they will find me and lock me up, not being able to pay the fine, my visa getting cancelled, and my mental health deteriorating since I am too scared to go out to exercise and many other things…I was just skating for 2 minutes there without causing any hurt to anyone, how can I know that if I walk in the street, suddenly the police says I’m breaking a law I didn’t know that exists?

In Port Melbourne a woman felt intimidated by police when they drove right up to her to question her when he was exercising by herself:

I felt quite intimidated when the cop car pulled up facing me. It was unnecessary, I was in gym gear running up and down. A clear sign that I am exercising (Which is what they asked me). So wasn’t sure why they needed to drive their car up to me to just make that same point which was obvious. Felt like I was doing something wrong and had to go back. Felt angry that they had targeted me. I wonder if a white Caucasian woman would’ve been followed like this and questioned?I was alone with no one around, in broad day light and not doing anything illegal.

On 17 April at 9.30am a report of police stopping cars on Glenhuntly Rd in Elsternwick (Vic) and swiping/scanning drivers licences. They said that they are monitoring how often people leave their homes and that people should be staying home

The person described it as “wide scaled monitoring”.

A woman with her three young children parked at the Hastings boat ramp to eat their takeaway dinner (inside the car). Police told her she was “loitering and needed to move on”.

The woman said that she thought police stopped and quested her because:

there seems to be an opportunity for police to harass any member of the public under the reason of COVID 19 enforcement, there was no reason to approach my car as there was clearly only one adult in the car and all were contained inside the vehicle, being unnecessarily interrogated when there was clearly no breach of any rules or laws is disappointing, there was more chance of spreading a virus once my daughter wound down her window over leaving us be to mind our own business.

A lawyer from Melbourne submitted a report of a young person (16 years old) walking with a friend in Caroline Springs when they are suddenly yelled at and chased by occupants in a car. The young people fled and jumped over a back fence to seek safety. The occupants of the house would not let them in the house and called the police and the young people stayed until the police arrived. The police fined both young people in breach of COVID restrictions.

A man in Pakenham was in is car about to drive home after exercising, police approached him and “intimidated” him and said he’d be receiving a fine in the mail.

On 13 April a couple and their adult son were returning to WA from Sydney after completing 14 days quarantine. They had paperwork from NSW health that confirmed they had completed quarantine and had medical clearance to travel home. They were stopped at the at the WA/SA border, where the police officer who inspected their papers proceeded to tear them up and place them in the bin. The woman reported that this was very concerning as they then did not have paperwork to travel between regions in WA. On 18 April the same family had police and military personal visit them: 

Police banged on our door to check we are home as we are in self isolation.
 3 ops
(sic), 1 military personnel and 2 cars. Police also attended yesterday.

In addition, we noted media reports of a couple in Gippsland, Victoria, who were each fined $1652 after posting photos to Facebook of a holiday they had in June 2019. Police have reportedly revoked the fine and also told them not to post any more photos with the lockdown is in place. 

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 publicly.  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. 

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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