Why are Victorian police so violent?

Issue 

By Kim Linden

MELBOURNE — "Victorians Under Siege? The Case for an Inquiry into the Victorian Police", a report by the police issues group of the Federation of Community Legal Centres, examines policing under the Kennett government since its election in 1993. Released in March, it also includes research by community lawyer Jude McCulloch into the use of excessive force by Victoria police from 1984 to March 1996.

Over this period, police have shot and killed 34 people. According to McCulloch, "Victoria Police shoot and kill citizens in far greater numbers than their interstate counterparts ... From 1984 to 1995 the Victoria Police shot and killed as many people as all other state police forces combined. At least 10 of the 34 people shot by police were shot in the back, five were completely unarmed, one was armed with a baseball bat, one with the end of an umbrella stake, one with a small hatchet, one with a Samurai sword, one with a cross bow and one with a pick axe."

Eleven of the 34 deaths took place in 1993-95. McCulloch notes that prior to 1990, police shot and killed a number of people wielding weapons other than guns. In each case, the police maintained that they had mistaken the weapon for a gun.

Post-1990, it has been acceptable for police to shoot to kill people wielding "edged weapons". This, according to McCulloch, is why police have shot dead so many people with mental illnesses since 1990.

There has been little research into why Victorian police are more violent than other police forces. A review of police shootings by the Australian Institute of Criminology published in 1994 suggests that the major cause of high levels of police violence in Victoria is the violence directed at police. But McCulloch says this is at odds with overseas research, which shows that the number of police shootings reflects the policies and philosophies of particular police departments more than the level of violence directed at police.

If this is the case, why have Victoria's police powers been extended even further? Police now have the power to demand names and addresses and take fingerprints from persons aged 15 and over using "reasonable force". They may also use capsicum spray gas. Changes to police administration now give the police commissioner the power to hire, fire, promote, discipline and transfer officers, and the Police Commission has replaced the Police Discipline Board, which had disclosed serious problems within the police force.

Police powers in relation to raids have been curbed under amendments to the Crimes Act which took effect in 1994. However, as the police raid on the gay and lesbian nightclub Tasty showed, the police do not feel bound by the act. On May 20, the County Court found that the police had acted beyond the power of their warrant and ordered them to pay compensation to the raid victims.

Police numbers have grown by 117 in the past 12 months, and the Age continues to run police recruitment advertisements.

As the federation's report points out, increasing police powers inevitably results in turning the most vulnerable members of the community — the unemployed, homeless, ethnic minorities and Aboriginal people — into criminals.

Police presence at rallies and picket lines has been stepped up. As the Richmond Secondary College dispute showed, this can result in a direct attack on the basic right of communities to organise.

When the Kennett government attempted to close down the college, parents, students, volunteer teachers and protesters occupied and conducted their own unofficial school throughout 1993. The government had the protesters removed from the site on December 7, 1993. Protesters subsequently set up a picket line and on December 13 police used batons to beat back protesters.

The government and the police defended the baton charge as necessary because they said that the protesters had behaved aggressively and tried to stop contractors from entering the school. Documents released under Freedom of Information reveal that the baton charge was rehearsed at Melbourne's docks the previous week.

Yvette Myer, member of Friends of Richmond and one of the organisers of the March for Justice Rally to be held on June 28, told Green Left Weekly, "Ten years of police violence has created a culture of violence. The baton charge at Richmond is a symptom of this".

The March for Justice rally, which will assemble from 5pm at Bourke St Mall, has been endorsed by many groups, including the Friends of Richmond, Save Albert Park and the Student Unionism Network. At 6pm there will be a march to the Police Centre (next to the Crown Casino) via the Force Response Unit headquarters at Flinders Lane. Phone 9481 6724 for further details.