Breaking The Thin Blue Line: A Question Of Confidence

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Police backing police facing serious criminal charges undermines the entire service, writes Sophie Ellis, a Solicitor with the Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre.

The Police Association of Victoria’s (PAV) public backing late last week of the two officers charged with assaulting Yvonne Berry, is deeply troubling.

Yvonne Berry was an off duty police officer who was allegedly stomped, kicked, dragged, capsicum sprayed and stripped of her underpants whilst in police custody at Ballarat police station in 2015. Her purported crime? Being drunk. The footage of some of her treatment is harrowing.

In a statement issued last week, the new PAV Secretary, Wayne Gatt stated:

“[police officers]must be supported in making judgement calls in their daily interactions with the public. The officers charged today have the support of their colleagues and The Police Association.”

The PAV’s public support of the Ballarat officers follows other public backings by PAV, of police accused of violent criminal conduct. The public, unquestioning endorsement of officers subject to proper legal scrutiny, is to the detriment of the reputation of the Victorian police force and those officers working to stamp out old and discredited methods of policing.

Granted, the Ballarat officers have not yet been convicted and they deserve their day in court. But to publicly provide support for alleged conduct that, at best, has been subject to a damning report by the Independent Broad Based Anti-Corruption Commission, and at worst, is now subject to criminal investigation sends an alarming message that potentially criminal and human rights breaching conduct by police association members is condoned.

Police do have the power to use force against civilians, but there are important legal safeguards to ensure that any force used is reasonably necessary and proportionate. When it moves beyond this, it is not lawful. It’s criminal.

When police take a person into custody, they have a duty of care to ensure that person’s safety, health and welfare. That responsibility is heightened when the person is particularly vulnerable, including when they are drunk.

Police also have a responsibility to ensure that the human rights of those in their care are respected, including a person’s right to be treated humanely when deprived of liberty. Any limitations on a person’s human rights must be for a legitimate purpose, necessary, proportionate and lawful, in accordance with Victoria Police’s obligations under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

These obligations are all set out in the Victoria Police Manual and sit alongside the obligation to ensure a persons’ treatment by police in custody is accountable and transparent.

The PAV’s message defends old-school and out-dated policing and risks undermining the recruitment and retention of the very officers Victoria Police needs – those that act with integrity; that protect civilians rather than brutalise them.

The PAV, through public statements such as those made on Friday, plays a dangerous card. The ramification being that police will be deterred from reporting concerns about their peers’ conduct, including alleged conduct that could constitute serious assaults and human rights breaches against civilians.

This not only undermines important principles and safeguards like transparency and accountability, that court hearings like the Yvonne Berry case seek to achieve, but it also makes Victorians less safe.

The message being sent to police is to back your peers, no matter what, even when engaging in conduct that could amount to criminality. This is why we need an independent body that can adequately scrutinise allegations of police wrongdoing.

We cannot entrust investigations into alleged police brutality to be carried out by police, when public messages by the police’s own representative body is to rally behind your peers, even when their conduct is in question.

Unfortunately, the situation remains in Victoria that, despite the establishment of the Independent Broad Based Anti-Corruption Commission in 2011, over 90 per cent of complaints made against police to it (many of which involve assault and human right breaches) are referred back for investigation by police. It’s high time this changed.

If the type of policing that is properly being scrutinised by the courts in the Yvonne Berry case continues to be condoned unquestioningly by the PAV, Victorians will be less safe and the reputation of the force and community confidence in it, will be jeopardised.

Our police force should be the best of the best and it’s time the PAV starts supporting this effort.

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Sophie Ellis

Sophie Ellis is a lawyer at Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre’s Police Accountability Project – a specialist public interest legal practice focused on accountability law and strategies to provide justice to victims of police misconduct.

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