Covidpolicing Weekly roundup #3

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The CovidPolicing.org.au website was launched on Monday 6th April, 2020 to track the extraordinary expansion of police powers in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic and the unequal patterns of enforcement that may arise as  a result. 

We stress that the public health measures introduced in Australia on the basis of medical advice to prevent the spread of coronavirus are vitally important and should be observed.  It is crucial that people listen to health authorities and take social distancing seriously. We must be careful, however, not to permit policing or punitive responses to this crisis that, under the comforting idea of “public safety” end up generating further health and societal harms and endangering the very communities who are most at risk.

This project aims to bring to light COVID-19 related patterns of police intervention to help understand who is being affected, what harms are resulting from police intervention, and how different communities are being impacted. 

Community Legal Centres Australia (CLCA), the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) and Digital Rights Watch have joined the project as partners over the past week. 

Some of the incident reports from this week and last were reported in the Guardian on Tuesday 21 April,

“Victorians describe feeling ‘intimidated’ by police enforcing lockdown laws” – Micheal McGowen, The Guardian.

Isabelle Reinecke, the executive director of the Grata Fund pointed out that “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.”   This is again borne out by reports that highlight interactions that did not result in fines could also have negative consequences and social and psychological harms.

Many of the reports received by this site relate to fines that may have been issued incorrectly or without lawful basis.  We note that police in Victoria have recently put in place a policy “to proactively review every infringement that has been issued to determine whether it was appropriately issued or whether a warning would have been more appropriate”. Queensland Police had announced a similar fines review process the week previously.  NSW Police has also been reviewing the almost 1000 infringement notices it has issued over the last four weeks.  

Whilst the retrospective review of COVID 19 fines is welcome and the cancelling of unreasonable or unlawfully issued fines will reduce stress both on individuals and the court system, the number of incorrectly issued fines under these new powers has highlighted the tendency of some police forces to adopt a more punitive and enforcement driven approach to these public health measures. It has become clear that police have been mobilised in different ways in response to the pandemic. This article by SBS’s, Claudia Farhart posits that while the social distancing rules implemented by each state and territory on the basis of medical advice are broadly similar, the “number of fines issued in each jurisdiction ranges from almost 2,000 to zero”, with Victoria Police issuing the most fines in the country. Police in the Australian Capital Territory have yet to issue a single COVID-19 infringement (as at 22 April,2020).  This stark contrast in policing approach, and its results, warrants further study.

As criminologist Alex Luscombe from the University of Toronto has pointed out this week, fining people for failing to physical distance is unlikely to have the deterrent effect that  governments believe it will.  “Criminologists  have examined this issue for decades, in different contexts, with little conclusive evidence.”

Unfortunately, the evidence is simply not there. In the context of driving offences for example, where much of the research on fines and deterrence has been conducted, there is no conclusive evidence of either specific or general deterrent effects. As the size of the fine goes up, we also do not necessarily see greater deterrence.

Additionally, the harm of the move-on directions, warnings and fines is likely to be disproportionately felt by those who are poor and marginalised, and already at greater risk  from COVID-19.

Illustrating this concern was the media report this week of an Aboriginal man sleeping on a park bench in Collingwood in Melbourne being fined $1,652 by police on April 3rd “for unlawfully being outside his place of residence during the COVID-19 outbreak”. The man spent 2 weeks in custody after COVID court practice directives were reportedly ignored in a case the man’s lawyer said “reeks of unfairness and injustice”.

In Victoria the stay at home direction does not apply to someone who “does not have an ordinary place of residence” – we interpret this to mean, as it explicitly does in NSW, that people experiencing homelessness are exempt from the requirement to “stay at home.” 

Homelessness services and youth agencies have been stressing the need for a health based approach, not enforcement, for people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. During coronavirus this means not policing and penalising people, particularly people experiencing homelessness, for their necessary use of public spaces. It also means providing safe, suitable, and free accommodation to our homeless community as well as supporting people when those criteria are not met or supporting those who are unable to maintain one consistent place of residency.

Summary of reports:

From Monday April 20 to Sunday April 26, the third week of operation of the Covidpolicing website, there were 14 reports of interactions with police. Reports were spread between Victoria (7), followed by NSW (2), Queensland (3) and Western Australia (2).

Similarity to previous weeks people reported feeling intimidated, confused, stressed, scared and shaken after their encounter with police.  Two reports related positive encounters with police.  A number of reports noted the perceived unfairness of police out enforcing social distancing measures while not observing them themselves.

In Northern Sydney police who appeared to be enforcing Stay at home measures were observed cycling through an area clearly signed as reserved for pedestrians and usually patrolled on foot by rangers. Members of the public were heard commenting on the perceived unfairness of the police not adhering to public safety measures while seeking to enforce measures to achieve public health and safety.

In a shopping centre in inner city Richmond in Melbourne 6 police and a few more Protective Service Officers (PSOs) patrolling the centre were observed not observing the 1.5 metre social distancing rules – walking in pairs and in one instance about 4 or 5 congregating in a group chatting amongst themselves.

In the Southern Highlands of NSW a motorbike rider reported that he was out riding alone and had stopped to rest when he was approached by police.  The police told him there was no “excuse for riding in the area”. The police did not accept his explanation that riding his motorbike helped him to relieve the stress associated with mental illness. The report noted that police were not practicing social distancing and were not wearing gloves or mask when they took his licence to inspect it.

Some reports noted the police seemed unwilling to take into account the circumstances of the situation, refusing to accept explanations for behaviour.

Police in the outer suburbs of Brisbane fined a woman walking with her partner to a service station to purchase sanitary items. The police did not appear to accept the woman’s explanation of why she and her partner were walking together but had separate addresses – they are living separately to protect her partner’s mother who is vulnerable to Covid19.

A man was travelling from Nowra in NSW back to his home in Victoria in his campervan having recently realised that Stay at home measures required him to return. He is on a disability support pension and his lack of internet connection meant that he was unaware of the full extent of the Stay at home measures. A police officer who stopped him in Victoria issued him with a fine of $1650 which he has no means of paying.

Police knocked on the door of a household occupied by 7 people in Melbourne’s inner north. The boyfriend of one of the house occupants answered the door and was questioned and then the police, who appeared not to believe that 7 people lived in the house or that the boyfriend had a legitimate reason for being in the house, questioned 2 of the house occupants. The police threatened fines and said they had been watching the house for 10 minutes. The interaction left the person who reported the incident shaken and scared and ended only when the police received a call regarding an incident nearby and left.

A number of reports related to police intercepting people out exercising. In a week where media stories have emerged on the health benefits of being outdoors during this time, this is concerning.

In Melbourne’s inner south east a cyclist out exercising who had stopped to eat a roll on his own and away from other members of the public was told to move on by Protective Services Officers (PSOs) who appeared to be enforcing Stay at home measures. The police appeared to be moving on everyone in the area.

On the outskirts of Perth a Perth couple out walking for exercise in a recreational area around a dam were told to return home.

Other Observations

We note widespread privacy concerns this week over the introduction of the new COVIDSafe contact tracking smartphone app by the federal government.   On 22nd April Attorney-General Christian Porter stated that police will be barred from accessing metadata from the app. And Health Minister Greg Hunt announced a Determination under the Biosecurity Act to prohibit other access or use of the app or the data.  

One of this site’s partner groups, Digital Rights Watch has released this useful explainer detailing the privacy impacts of the app.

Covid-19 Prison Watch launched

A website has been launched this week as a central source of information on what is happening in  prisons around Australia in response to the COVID19 threat, as well as  the efforts by the community and advocacy groups in the call to release  prisoners at risk in the current COVID19 pandemic.  Transmission in prisons has already been a major issue in China, Italy and Iran and recent COVID19 deaths in prisons in the US and the UK. In order to protect the health of prisoners and the broader community, there are widespread calls for prisoners to be released where it is safe to do so. The new site is: www.covid19prisonwatch.net.au 

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.

Previous weekly round-ups can be found here.

You can make a report on behalf of someone else, a client or report an incident that you wish to bring to our attention.

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.

These publicly collected reports can only ever form a small part of that picture. The onus remains on governments, police command and oversight bodies to ensure that comprehensive and transparent analysis of police stop data is being undertaken. Police stop data monitoring remains the only valid method to determine if and how large scale police interventions are disproportionately impacting some communities more than others.

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.

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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