Police violence in Victoria

Issue 

By Alex Cooper

MELBOURNE — Broken bones, forced strip searching, assaults and abuse are some of the things suffered at the hands of police in Victoria, according to a report released by the Federation of Community Legal Centres at the end of May.

In 1988-89 there were 1056 complaints laid against police. By 1991-92 this had risen to 4525. The report's findings are based on a survey undertaken by the federation which involved questionnaires being sent to legal centres and other agencies throughout the state.

The report found that the typical victim of police bashing is an Australian male under the age of 30, likely to reside in the greater metropolitan area and not be in the paid work force.

Almost half the people who responded reported that they had been mistreated by police on a previous occasion. The areas with the highest incidence of mistreatment were St Kilda, Footscray and Flemington.

Women and those over 25 were more likely to be assaulted in their homes, while men and those under 16 were more likely to meet the police in public toilets and railway stations.

  • Police mistreatment reported by respondents usually involved more than one constable or senior constable. Female police officers were involved in more incidents involving men than women respondents. Nearly half of the police officers involved identified themselves.

  • One-third of incidents occurred in police stations.

  • Verbal and physical abuse, particularly bruising and broken bones, were the most frequently reported forms of mistreatment.

  • Most respondents say they were not informed of their right to complain about police behaviour. This was not generally related to gender, age or language preference.

Only 60% of people surveyed were charged with offences, and over half were detained in custody. Of these respondents, 60% were detained for less than four hours. The period of detention was greater for men than for women and increased with age.

Nearly 40% of respondents formally complained about their mistreatment to their lawyer or the police Internal Investigations Bureau. About 70% discussed the incident in a less formal professional environment, usually with community workers.

Most respondents who had not complained said they were too cynical or frightened of the consequences. Only 14% said they did not know how. People of non-English speaking background were more likely than English speakers to say they were too frightened to sh speakers were more likely to say that a complaint would not achieve anything.

The report cites a number of case histories.

One man who had a broken hand was left in a cell for three and a half hours without treatment by St Albans police as well as being kneed and punched. From this he suffered a broken knee. When the police finally took him to hospital, they threatened him and offered no assistance despite his not being able to walk.

Three Vietnamese men were picked up by St Kilda police. One was assaulted so severely that he was coughing blood and had to admit himself to hospital. The three men also suffered extreme verbal and physical abuse which the report says "exhibit[ed] distinct overtones of racism". None of these men were charged.

Following the report's release, a spokesperson for the Ethnic Communities Council, Victor Borg, said police officers have racist attitudes reflecting bad recruiting and training policies. Over the last year police have been strongly criticised by social workers in the Vietnamese community for harassing Vietnamese youths and helping spread a scare campaign about "Asian crime" in the mass media.

The report found that many people have been threatened with guns, strip searched, and in some cases have had their houses raided by police who kick doors in.

Several people reported that they had been entrapped. One man in Melton had sexual advances made to him. When he responded positively, he was assaulted. Only then did he find that the other man was a police officer. He was charged with indecent behaviour and indecent assault.

Chief Police Commissioner Neil Comrie responded predictably to the report. He called it "mischievous, carping criticism" and said the police had an effective system for investigating complaints. However, director of public prosecutions Bernard Bongiorno recently accused police of using strongarm tactics to help their colleagues facing criminal charges.

The report says that responsibility for police violence lay at all levels — from those who made broader policy decisions at the highest level down to the police "on the beat". It is also shaped by factors such as police officers' backgrounds, training, police occupational culture and the legal framework.

The Police Association in Victoria was an influential source of "opposition to any significant reform".

Under the Kennett Liberal government, the police department is the only section of the public sector not to face job and funding cuts. The former Labor government was only too happy to provide police with some of the powers they demanded, such as the abolition of time limits for holding people without formally charging them and permitting use of force to take intimate body samples. However, it refused to give police the power to take names and addresses without reasonable suspicion — a power in legislation passed in May.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including a community visitors scheme with powers to randomly visit police stations and banning of body searches and strip searches unless life is at risk. Other recommendations deal with making the police more accountable to the public.

The report is available from the Fitzroy Legal Service, 181 Brunswick St, Fitzroy 3065, for $10.

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