We begin this weekly roundup with disturbing reports from the Northern Territory (NT). Residents of Tennant Creek in the NT have been calling on politicians and human rights groups for help with the intimidating enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions by state police, federal police, and military personnel.
Amnesty International said it had received about 12 complaints from residents in Tennant Creek, many about the conduct of officers doing coronavirus compliance checks.
“This is not a way of making it safer, this is the bully-boy attitude of going in and standing over the top of our people,” Amnesty International Indigenous rights adviser Rodney Dillion said.
“One complaint made to Amnesty alleges a group of officers, thought to be both police and military, showed up to a property, before some officers entered the house and made residents stand for a headcount.
A separate complainant said a group of authorities showed up to her home to see who was there, before police entered and poured out the residents’ alcohol.”
Another report we received from a resident of the inner city suburb of Glebe in NSW really stood out this week and highlighted the discriminatory nature of this sort of policing. The resident gave the following account when they were walking down the street;
“Two police vehicles were coming in the opposite direction. The second vehicle stopped to talk to an Aboriginal man who was walking slightly ahead of me in the same direction. I stopped in case he needed help or a witness…. He was agitated and told the police he’d already been stopped twice in the preceding 10 minutes and that he was on his way to the Glebe police station to lodge a complaint about racial profiling. He had been stopped 37 times in the past month. He had lived in the area for more than 30 years.”
Although restrictions continue to ease across the continent and the number of incident reports coming through the site continues to slow, we are still receiving reports from people feeling intimidated, targeted, and confused by the police enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions.
Since the lunching of the site, we continue to see reports of police issuing COVID-19 fines to members of the public as unwarranted and unnecessary add-ons to other fines or offences. Or to legitimise a stop-and-question they have conducted but found no obvious breach of the restrictions or other law.
We are pleased to announce that the Public Interest Advocacy Centre has joined as a partner to the site.
Summary of this week’s reports
In Victoria a witness wrote about one of their clients. A late-night bike rider saw a police car coming towards them – they felt anxious and scared and fled. After being chased and tackled to the ground, police mocked and insulted them, searched their belongings, and gave them a non-covid related fine. They overheard police discussing the situation and flippantly decided to add on the COVID fine.
“Our client overheard the police discuss what they would do with them and in the end decided to fine them for a non-COVID alleged offence and then add on the COVID-19 fine without reason or thought.”
In Queensland one person was stopped by police when they were attempting to go on a trail run with their partner. Having recently moved to a new house, the reportee did not know their new address when asked. They were handcuffed by police and taken to their new house to confirm their address. They were then taken to a police station and given a fine for being outside the 10km from home radius restriction in Queensland. Days prior the partner was unknowingly in breach of the restrictions but received a warning instead of a fine.
“The laws were very unclear between both me and the officers they could not answer my questions but rather told me to get a tv? I’m really confused in why I wasn’t given a warning like [my partner] had a warning 3 days prior… I received this fine but my partner did not how is this fair ??”
The above reportee importantly flagged their suspicion that they were treated differently than their partner and were unnecessarily cuffed and taken to a police station because of their clothes and appearance.
Equally concerning as fines, we continue to see police across the continent using restrictions to stop and question people. Even when no fine is issued, this is a critical issue for the public to be able to move freely and without arbitrary interference in their daily lives. While police may not view stop-and-question interactions as concerning or particularly onerous, this is often not the reality for the person they are questioning. Being stopped by armed police can be extremely stressful for any individual and shake their feelings of confidence and safety in moving through the world.
For those who come from communities regularly over-policed, police stops form part of a broader picture of marginalisation, intimidation, and discrimination. One witness wrote into the site this week after she spoke to an Aboriginal man in Sydney who has been stopped 37 times in the previous four weeks:
“The second vehicle stopped to talk to an Aboriginal man who was walking slightly ahead of me in the same direction. I stopped in case he needed help or a witness. He was agitated and told the police he’d already been stopped twice in the preceding 10 minutes and that he was on his way to the Glebe police station to lodge a complaint about racial profiling. He had been stopped 37 times in the past month.”
Time and time again we are receiving reports where, despite whether or not there is a legitimate stop under the restrictions being made, police behaviour towards members of the public has been hostile, unprofessional, or intimidating.
One woman in Victoria walked to her local café to get a coffee – whilst sitting with her coffee physically distanced from others, she witnessed a police car arrive and officers question another person without leaving their vehicle and possibly handing that person a fine. The police car then moved to the witness and questioned her reason for sitting down. When she explained that she was taking a break during her walk the police officer threatened to fine her for loitering.
“He said I shouldn’t stop if I was walking the dog. I told him I was half way through a walk and had a km to go home & all of it uphill. I said I always break my walking halfway. with a sit down. I didn’t mention my age as I thought it wasn’t relevant – younger people also may need rests!
He took my name & address & birth date (all without getting out of the car, so it was hard to hear everything he said. I had to keep asking him to repeat things.)”
Policing of Protest activities
Over recent weeks protest activities have been held in different parts of the continent. It is important to remember that while “protest activity” is not listed in different states’ reasons to be outside, the actual impact that COVID-19 restrictions can legally have on our rights to political demonstration is yet to be tested through the courts.
Protesting, aka political demonstration or political communication, is recognised as an international human right. It is legally protected in the Constitution of Australia as a fundamental aspect of a representative government and is also recognised as a human right in Victoria and the ACT.
Last week (10 may 2020) anti-lockdown protesters gathered in Melbourne and Sydney to protest the restrictions. In Melbourne more than 100 people gathered and did not comply with physical distancing directions. Among others, the anti-lockdown protests have been championed by neo-nazi and other far-right groups. The police clashed with the protest group and 10 people were arrested: “While the majority of the arrests were for failing to comply with public health orders, three people will be charged with assaulting a police officer and another for “discharging a missile” after allegedly throwing a bottle at an officer.” A woman was also arrested at the Sydney protest for allegedly failing to give police her name and address when they attempted to issue her with a fine.
Protests were also held (16 May 2020) in support of refugees and asylum seekers detained in the Mantra Hotel in Preston, Melbourne and in immigration detention centres across the continent.
People held in detention in the hotel have been campaigning for their mental and physical health while in detention during the pandemic. On Saturday 16 May 2020 protesters attended the outside of the hotel. The protest was organised to be compliant with physical distancing directions. We understand that protest organisers and Legal Observers from Melbourne Activist Legal Support liaised with police prior to the protest and were informed that so long as physical distancing and the maximum of 10 people per group gathering restrictions were adhered to, no fines would be issued. Warnings were given by police to protesters who were stood stationary or stayed in one area too long.
This response to the Mantra Hotel protest appears to be in line with Victoria police directives since the state’s easing of restrictions. As of midnight Tuesday 12 May 2020 people in Victoria are permitted to leave the house to visit friends or family, to meet in groups of ten, and to have up to five visitors in their homes. Following the eased restriction Victoria police have been instructed to get approval from a supervisor before issuing COVID-19 fines. Victoria police has stated that they accept there may be genuine ambiguity in the community and officers in interpreting the new direction.
In other news & related events
Politicians in NSW are calling on police to stop issuing fines to children who are in breach of the COVID-19 restrictions.
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge is behind the push for more leniency and told 2GB’s Ben Fordham he wants police to adopt a more “sensible approach”.
“Unfortunately, when the government rushed this legislation through they didn’t put in the usual protections for kids, that would say you can’t fine kids.”
NSW police added a COVID-19 fine when fining a man for drinking alcohol in an alcohol free-zone in Maroubra and fined another person in Annandale after they have previously been warned three times for breaching the restrictions.
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton has reported to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry on Tuesday 19th May, that police had made almost 48,000 ‘compliance checks’ and issued 5,604 fines since enforcement of the restrictions began. These figures confirm Victoria’s status as the most punitive in Australia with COVID related fines outnumbering those in NSW and other states.
However in welcome news the Victorian Chief Commissioner has committed to releasing both fines and compliance checks data by Local Government Area (LGA). Whilst not as comprehensive as required according recent calls, this location data will provide valuable insight into patterns of policing across the state. We hope that it is released as soon as possible.
Police in the United Kingdom have released the gender, age & ethnicity breakdown of those fined under coronavirus rules. Comparing the figures to census data indicates that Black and Asian communities, young people and men were disproportionately fined.
NSW police have announced this week that they will be riding on public transport to enforce social distancing restrictions and prevent harassment of drivers and frontline transport workers.
This Friday May 22, The Victorian Human Rights Commission is holding a livepanel 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.
For those who missed the UK based Human Rights Lawyers Association May 12th event ‘Coronavirus and Human Rights: Policing, Surveillance and Detention’ you can watch a recording of the event 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.
Previous weekly round-ups can be found here.
These weekly round-ups are summaries only and do not necessarily represent the views of all project partners in entirety .
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].