NSW police: mission accomplished?

September 14, 2007

"Mission accomplished!", boasted NSW Premier Morris Iemma at the end of one of the most aggressive policing operations in Australia for many years. The last public official to use that phrase was US President George Bush, who had just invaded Iraq. Did Iemma mean to link the thousands of protesters in Sydney with the enemy population of Iraq?

Not for a long time have ordinary people come out into the streets in such great numbers to defend their right to protest. And this was despite the huge propaganda campaign designed to scare people away.

Two corporate TV reporters told me that the police aggression was worse than they had experienced in Indonesia and Hong Kong: at least there, reporters were safe from being slammed to the ground, and police waited until they were out of view before sitting on and repeatedly punching an arrested person.

From a "national security" point of view, the policing was a shambles. All it took for ABC TV's The Chaser's War on Everything to break through security was a few hired cars. The Chaser motorcade could have been full of suicide car bombers. That masses of people were not killed at APEC 2007 had nothing to do with police security and everything to do with the absence of any actual terrorists.

The Chaser will never be forgiven by the NSW police for breaching security just as the protesters will never be forgiven for failing to riot to justify the spending of $600,000 on a water cannon, $170 million on security, and a police operation that even APEC delegates complained about.

What an irony that the head of ASIO was kept out of the APEC security area because his identity couldn't be confirmed, while the professional jokers at The Chaser were told by police in a secure area that "the road is yours".

TV footage of police behaviour has led to calls for an inquiry by the NSW Greens, civil libertarians and Paula Bronstein, the award-winning New York-based photographer who was injured while being thrown to the ground.

But even that footage didn't stop NSW police commissioner Andrew Scipione from defending officers who breached police regulations by taking off identification tags. Experienced protesters know that this is what police do just before they start using batons and pepper spray and unreasonable force. Like thieves in the dead of night, the last thing they want is to be identified.

Scipione's excuse for why the police were not wearing their badges run from the ludicrous to the surreal: that the Velcro ID tags came off during scuffles (at the beginning of the march); that they were deliberately taken off to prevent them being used as weapons (the smooth side, or the harsh Velcro side?); and that the badges, which were stuck on with a pin, could have been taken off and the pin used as a weapon against a police officer.

In my 27 years of attending protests and the last five years as part of the Human Rights Monitors I have never heard of a police officer being pricked by a pin. If a pin can be taken from a police officer and used as a weapon, how easy would it be to remove their guns, batons and pepper spray?

Scipione's internal police inquiry is akin to asking Al Capone to conduct an inquiry into the sly grog trade. Expect public comments soon about how a "small" number of officers weren't wearing their badges. But the Human Rights Monitors have photographs and video of more than 200 officers who were not wearing badges, plus 100 more whose identification was covered up with yellow vests and raincoats.

With the exception of the commissioner, the police minister, the premier and the PM, who have repeatedly said that they endorse "every action" of the NSW police, the police behaviour at the Stop Bush protest has been universally condemned — including even by right-wing columnist Miranda Devine who railed at their aggression against a non-protester.

"Mission accomplished?", Mr Iemma? No, the war for accountability has just begun.

[Dale Mills is the coordinator for Human Rights Monitors, and writes in a personal capacity. Human Rights Monitors had 30 observers at the APEC protests. Mills is interested in photos or video of police misbehaviour at the APEC protests. He can be contacted at dalemills@cantab.net or on 0422 644 363.]

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