New police powers threaten human rights

Issue 

On December 16, the Victorian state government passed the Summary Offences and Control of Weapons Acts Amendment Bill 2009.

The amended legislation contravenes Victoria's Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and hands increased powers to the police to combat "anti-social behaviour and violence".

The new powers allow police to stop and search anybody, without a search warrant, in a designated "weapons search area". The new laws also give police the power to randomly search children and conduct strip searches.

Simply hanging out in public and refusing to "move on" from a certain area could mean you get a $500 fine under the new laws.

A stagger back home after a few hours at your local pub could also become a costly affair under the amended legislation. A new offence of disorderly conduct has been created, with a $234 on-the-spot fine, which will apply in addition to the existing offences of "drunk and disorderly" and "drunk".

Concerns have been raised that the new offence of disorderly conduct is not adequately defined, leaving it to the arbitrary judgment of individual police officers.

The new laws have been criticised by human rights, political, legal and welfare organisations as unnecessary and as potentially targeting vulnerable groups in society, such as the homeless, the mentally ill and young and Indigenous people.

Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights commission said "freedom of movement, freedom of expression, the right to privacy, liberty and security, equal treatment before the law, freedom from discrimination, and the protection of families and children" are under threat from the amended legislation.

The Homeless Persons' Legal Clinic (HPLC) of the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) said "move-on" police powers do not reduce crime, but tend to shift people, mostly homeless, to other geographical locations. This could have other serious consequences.

PILCH also said the laws will affect the homeless more due to their lack of secure housing.

Ben Courtice, a long term Footscray resident and Socialist Alliance candidate in the upcoming Victorian state election is appalled by the new laws, calling them a "step closer to turning Victoria into a complete police state".
The new powers were first used on January 7 in Footscray, a multiethnic western Melbourne suburb, after the government announced the first planned designated area on New Years Eve.

"Why start with Footscray? Is it really because there is more violence here? I have never felt threatened in Footscray, yet I would hesitate to hang around the CBD nightclub areas late at night", Courtice told Green Left Weekly.

"There are already laws to deal with criminal behaviour, and allowing police to treat everyone like criminals is unlikely to stop the few individuals who are actually going to commit a violent crime."

The fatal stabbing of Indian student Nitin Garg in a Yarraville park on January 2 and other knife-related assaults have been used by police and the media to drum up public support for the new laws.

"Nitin Garg was stabbed in Yarraville, several kilometres away from central Footscray", Courtice said. "There is no sense to the police targeting Footscray, unless they want to use the stigma attached to Footscray as a poor suburb that has drug dealing, in order to test their new powers of intimidation.

"And poor, young people are easy targets for harassment because they are less likely to know their rights or have ready access to a lawyer."

James Farrell, manager and principal lawyer of PILCH (HPLC) is also concerned about the lack of transparency in how an area is designated for search.

Farrell observed the January 7 police operation in Footscray. He told GLW that the supposedly random searches were not random at all. "Eighty-five per cent of people we saw searched were male, of which about 50% were between 20 and 30 years of age. This demonstrates to us that the police are profiling particular demographic groups."

Courtice said the police in Footscray had a history of profiling and targeting young males, especially from African and Muslim backgrounds.

He said: "The new laws will increase the police harassment that vulnerable groups already face but will do nothing to address the underlying causes of some of the crimes these new laws are supposed to stop from occurring."

Courtice said, a government serious about community safety would address issues of marginalisation, racist attitudes in society, lack of proper jobs, housing and education opportunities and not take away civil liberties.

[Margarita Windisch is the Socialist Alliance candidate in the February 13 Altona by-election.]

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