A lot has happened over the past week as we monitor and analyse the policing of the covid-19 pandemic.
Every state in Australia is enforcing physical distancing laws slightly differently. As this article in the Guardian points out – sitting alone in a public park is permitted in four states but not permitted in two and remains ‘unclear’ in Victoria.
The Sun Herald has found that police enforcement in NSW has declined roughly in line with the dwindling number of new coronavirus cases. Victoria Police have reportedly issued 2,894 infringement notices since a state of emergency was declared on March 16 totally $4,780,888, far more than any other jurisdiction in the country.
Following the easing of COVID-19 related social distancing restrictions on Monday 11 May, Victoria Police officers have been directed to seek approval from supervisors before issuing a penalty notice.
According to the police memo this is due to the recognition of “some genuine ambiguity from the community and members alike regarding interpreting of the new directions.”
Given the high level of ambiguity of the public health directives before the recent change it is a shame that that this process was not in place from the beginning.
NSW Police confirmed officers had been issued with comprehensive state-wide guidance to ensure they use discretion appropriately and NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller is reviewing every fine and has withdrawn over fifty so far but has found “no indication of misuse of police powers”.
Samantha Lee, police accountability solicitor at the Redfern Legal Centre, said lower socioeconomic areas and regional towns seemed to be bearing the brunt. She was concerned the public health orders were being used to initiate stop and search proceedings against people who were already vulnerable, including those who are Indigenous, young or poor. She noted the $1000 cost of the fine was three times the base weekly amount of JobSeeker and double the amount of many speeding fines. Journalist Osman Faruqi has stated that the $1650 fine in Victoria is one of, if not, the highest in the world.
Sarah Crellin, the principal solicitor at the Aboriginal Legal Service, said COVID-19 fines were being used as an add-on punishment for other offences. This aligns with multiple reports that police are adding COVID fines to offences detected including traffic offences.
As restrictions ease and shift in various jurisdictions around the world calls for comprehensive reviews into how policing has impacted individuals and communities differently are also growing louder.
Multiple commentators and journalists have highlighted the fact that accurate or consistent data is not available in Australia, making analysis of discriminatory impacts difficult.
This week various commentators have highlighted how the limited data available so far provides and indication that areas with high Aboriginal or migrant populations have received far more police attention and more fines. Several human rights and legal agencies have called for all police stop data to be collated and analysed.
The NYPD and Brooklyn data sets reveal that minority communities have been impacted to a far greater extent by police enforcement during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the NYPD data, of 374 summons issued during the period, 304 or 81% were handed out to black and Hispanic people. Police in Australia are not releasing any ethnicity or detailed location data to enable similar analysis.
The Police Accountability Project has released an explainer on what a ‘stop-data monitoring scheme’ would look like in Australia.
The benefits of transparent data monitoring during this period of emergency policing are clear: The public, authorities, media and specific communities are provided with information that can either inform or dispel their concerns.
But this data monitoring must continue beyond the end of the COVID-19 restrictions. Everyone has a right and an expectation to be able to use public space without being treated with suspicion, asked to account for where they are going or told to ‘move-on’ simple because they fit a stereotype. Without addressing this core transparency and accountability issue, discriminatory policing will continue to impact those who get stopped in parks, libraries, train stations and driving on our roads – pandemic or no pandemic.
As Associate Professor in Law Amelia Thorpe has pointed out; public space is political and the rules that regulate streets, parks and other public spaces are always uneven and interpreted differently. In this period of COVID policing we’ve seen police apply particular interpretations of who should and shouldn’t be in public space and the impact that has had upon individuals, particularly those who have been genuinely trying to socially distance is striking.
This week has also seen another set of protest events in various states. In some cases these events have been organised to align with public health directives and socially distancing measures to avoid COVID-19 transmission. See: A Tale of Two Cities.
In other cases, protests have deliberately flouted the directives in opposition to the lock-down itself. In all cases, protests have been small and peaceful up until the time of police intervention. It should be questioned whether forceful arrests resulting in injuries, the use of OC (Capsicum spray) and extensive mass fining is the most appropriate and proportional response to these events.
As so many have stated before and during this current state of emergency, we cannot police our way out of this pandemic, and trying to doing so risks exacerbating inequities and further damaging already fragile human rights protections. Given their importance to a robust democracy, protest events should perhaps be given the same consideration by government and health authorities as golf, visiting friends, and going to the hardware store.
Summary of reports
There were 8 incident reports over the past week, Melbourne (5), NSW (1) ands Queensland (2).
One report of a fine of $1650 (Victoria), 5 of a warning and direction to move on and 2 with no formal direction from police.
A young woman at an inner-city shopping centre in Melbourne who was stopped by 4 male police officers can be seen as an example of harassment by police. In a number of reports over the past few weeks women have stated that they felt that the police have stopped them particularly because they are women. Woman have felt harassed by such behaviour and attitudes from the police.
I was stopped by a group of 4 police (all male, ages 30s and 40s) who I could see as I walked towards them, had been letting other people walk straight past.
One of them asked why my reason for being away from home was (we were approximately 15 mètres from Coles).
I told them I was there to buy groceries and they asked if I had a shopping list as proof of my need to do shopping. I laughed and said I never use a shopping list. They asked for to hand over my ID and take a seat nearby. I refused to give them my ID and began to walk off. I then heard them laughing behind me as I walked away. I feel like they approached me because I was a young woman in my own and there was four of them. It felt like it was just a bit of fun for them.
Another report from inner Melbourne where women felt targeted by police was of two women (housemates) dancing salsa in the park – as a form of exercise. The police told them that dancing was not a form of exercise and told them to move on. The woman thought that the police approached them because:
Maybe they thought we would be easy targets, as two women, so they could justify their existence without having to confront anyone that might get hostile. Lots of people were sitting around, some drinking alcohol, on the other side of the park at the same time.
A number of reports over the past few weeks have highlighted what they feel is different rules regarding COVID- 19 restrictions for the general public and police, for example police not observing the social distancing requirements – amongst themselves or with the public. This seems to compound the feelings of unfairness and arbitrariness in police enforcing the restrictions.
Another report from Melbourne in early April, detailed family members going to a mosque to farewell their aunty who had recently passed away. This was a very distressing time, compounded by the fact that they were unable to see her in hospital.
We arrived at the mosque, while patiently waiting 2 police vehicles had arrived with 4 officers. Which was extremely upsetting to see. They gave us strict instructions that we were only allowed to go in car by car to say our final good byes without making any contact with others. It was the most devastating thing to be told. We were not even allowed to hug our grandmother who was mourning the loss of her child.
The person stated they thought the police decided to approach them,
Because they saw cars parked outside the mosque. The fact 2 police cars came to a funeral because we are Muslim and black. There was absolutely no need for 2 police cars because everyone was in their cars and only 10 people were on the mosque grounds.
The writer of this incident highlighted, after seeing the media coverage of the funerals of the 4 police that were tragically killed on the eastern freeway what they described as “just completely unfair and hurtful to see” that “more than 10 people were allowed to say their goodbyes to the police officers that passed away and the fact that the families were allowed to hug and comfort one another.”
How are the police officers in-forcing one rule to civilians but they get to follow another. We’re all humans and allowing police to mourn with loved ones and civilians being told how to mourn is just unfair. Don’t expect us to follow the rules if you’re not even doing your selves.
A report from inner Melbourne from a father detailing what happened to his son.
my son was in (suburb) by himself and was leaving Coles supermarket when he was pulled up by the police twice in 5 minutes. The first time he explained to the officer he was on his way home and the officer told him to get home. Minutes later he as pulled up by a second policeman who was very physical with my son and pushed him to the ground and stuck his knee in the middle of his back to hold him down. He also got a $1650 fine. My son suffers from anxiety and depression and was very anxious that day because he was booked to go to a clinic and all day he was trying to deal with the situation. He is also unemployed because of the COVID-19.
In Queensland a farmer (who owns a large property on the NSW/Qld border) and his son had just crossed the border (with the required paperwork) was “chased down with lights flashing” and stopped by police in early April. The person described being “barked at” and the officer’s “thuggish, unprofessional, rude behaviour”.
Another couple in Queensland were intending to have a picnic “in line with Queensland government recommendations” within a 50km radius of their home.
My partner proposed to me that morning and we were planning to have a picnic to celebrate our decision to get married.
We set up our picnic rug at an appropriate distance from other people there (you can see in the photo [below] that people were suitably spaced apart). We had just poured drinks and started to eat when 3 police officers arrived and started asking people to move on.
They stated they felt intimidated by the 3 police, particularly the “visible weapons” on the police.
For family in NSW their young children were left traumatised after an encounter with police on a beach (1 April, 2020):
I was with my wife and 2 young children for a swim. We had just walked out of the surf and our children asked to make a sandcastle, I said yes. We had been seated on the sand for about 5 minutes when a police caged vehicle drove up to us on the sand and stopped.
Two policeman got out and walked toward us. My wife got up to address them. The policeman started having a go at her immediately. He was so condescending, asking her if she had any idea what was going on in the world.
She responded that we were out as a family, nowhere near anyone else for a swim and exercise. He then yelled at my wife, “You’re not exercising you are sitting down!” He then asked [where we lived.] My wife said the suburb we lived in (not far from [where we were]).
He said, “Then pack up and go there.” This policeman was way out of line. My wife did not engage with him any more than necessary to not further inflame him.
We then watched the two policeman approach everyone walking or waiting at the surf club cafe. An older couple approached us as we washed the kids down to say he had seen what happened and was appalled. He also told me they were walking and stopped to watch a dolphin only to be immediately approached and told to leave.
My children were quite frightened by being yelled at by the police, especially my 4 year old. It is now 5 weeks since this incident and he is still fearful of being in trouble with the police for going outside of our suburb.
There was no need for us to be spoken to like this. Absolute power trip by that policeman.
Lastly a recent incident in Melbourne:
The police arrived at our house early this morning unannounced, and two officers let themselves into our property via a close gate. There was no knock at the door; the gate was shut as we have a dog, and if it weren’t for the gate opening my housemate wouldn’t have been alerted to their presence. I live with two other people.
The police were accompanied by a German Shepard dog and each had a flashlight. They walked into our backyard, and into the back shed area, which we use as a second living space. We stayed inside whilst this happened as we were scared, and after a time they left, leaving the gate open. There was a chopper above for part of this time. No card was left. Our neighbour came out of his house and was in the front yard as this transpired.
Today my housemates have left the house for work and myself with our dog for exercise as I am too scared to stay home alone. As I left, a police chopper appeared and circled my location twice.
Other reports and upcoming events
In an article about the high number of young people in residential care running away during the COVID lockdown period, Victorian Commissioner for Children and Young People, Liana Buchanan said she had heard instances of children from residential care, being fined $1,652 by Victoria Police for breaching social distancing rules.
We can report that the Davenport Aboriginal community near Port Augusta in South Australia has moved to end a controversial coronavirus lockdown that meant all visitors and residents returning to the community have had to live in isolation for 14 days before entry. Residents had claimed the restrictions had blocked them from accessing essential services including supermarkets and medical clinics and had led to protests and one arrest that we referred to in the last Weekly Roundup. The Davenport Community Council said it had formally asked the State Government to start winding back strict measures policing residents’ movements.
On Monday 18 May, the Australia at Home lunchtime conversation series will hold- Policing in a pandemic – to discuss the current state of play, what is happening around police powers and pandemics and explore the systems and processes we need to ensure that people are not targeted or made vulnerable. See here for more details and registration.
On Friday May 22, The Victorian Human Rights Commission is holding a live panel discussion on Victoria Police’s emergency response to COVID-19 and the enforcement of the new public health directions
Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner (VEOHRC) Kristen Hilton, and IBAC Deputy Commissioner Katie Miller will discuss Victoria Police’s approach to policing in a time of COVID-19, the human rights considerations, and how agencies like VEOHRC and IBAC are overseeing the use of police powers during a time of unprecedented restrictions on community activities. More information here.
Fitzroy Legal Service, the Police Accountability Project and Justice Connect in Victoria also have a live online panel on Friday 22 May, to discuss how people in Victoria have been policed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which communities are being affected more than others, and where to next if you have been fined, charged, or treated unfairly by police. More information about that event here.
Fitzroy Legal Service has established a dedicated phone line 0434 136 501 for enquires about COVID-19 related policing. They can assist with legal information and advice, and will take on matters for casework when appropriate. Calls accepted from anyone in Victoria.
Legal Aid NSW has a number of Fact Sheets for the public about COVID-19: https://www.legalaid.nsw.gov.au/get-legal-help/covid-19
In Queensland, Caxton Legal Centre and Queensland Human Rights Council have released factsheets on COVID-19 also. https://caxton.org.au/caxtons-doors-are-closed-but-we-are-still-open-for-business/ and https://www.qhrc.qld.gov.au/your-rights/covid-19-and-human-rights
From Madeleine Bridgett : RLC have also produced some helpful info for NSW: https://rlc.org.au/article/nsw-covid-19-public-health-laws-and-police-powers
Previous weekly round-ups can be found here.
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.
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