In response to Premier Andrew’s declaration of a state of disaster in Victoria, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, legal and human rights organisations are calling for strong safeguards to ensure that police powers are exercised fairly and proportionately during the public health crisis.
The declaration of a state of disaster has granted significant powers directly to the Minister for Police to direct and coordinate a range of activities considered “necessary or desirable for responding to the disaster”. It gives the Minister for Police wide-reaching powers to regulate government activities and resources, as well as the power to suspend any law that would inhibit the response to the disaster.
This comes on top of the earlier broadening of police powers in response to the declaration of an emergency to enforce previous public health directions.
Monique Hurley, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre:
“Increased powers cannot be a free pass for heavy handed or discriminatory policing. The Andrews Government must guarantee that these new, wide reaching police powers will be properly and independently scrutinised and make sure there is accountability for any misuse. We don’t want increased police powers to become the new normal – the powers must end as soon as the pandemic does.”
A Parliamentary Inquiry into the Victorian Government’s response to COVID-19 has shown that Victoria’s three most disadvantaged communities have been disproportionately impacted by police enforcement measures, receiving 10 percent of COVID-19 fines. This is in contrast to the state’s three most advantaged local government areas that received just two per cent of total infringements. This inequality raises serious concerns about whether all communities are being policed fairly and equally, or if there has been differential treatment.
Nerita Waight, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service:
“Police must responsibly exercise their expansive powers, acknowledging that around the world, policing the pandemic through fines and arrests has disproportionately impacted on marginalised communities, including Aboriginal people. Police should prioritise providing public health messaging and supporting people to comply with the current restrictions. Arresting people will not achieve positive outcomes for the Victorian community, and such an approach would be at odds with expert advice that we need to curb admissions to detention to prevent further outbreaks of COVID-19 in detention and in the community.
“Abuses of power must be prevented through a government commitment to transparency (including making publicly available disaggregated data on stops, fines and arrests) and accountability for any discriminatory policing practices, to be complemented by robust oversight by independent bodies and organisations.”
Community Legal Centres assisting people who have been issued with fines related to COVID-19, even though they are eligible for an exemption, are concerned that there is currently not effective oversight of the use of police powers.
Karen Fletcher, Managing Lawyer Public Interest Law at Fitzroy Legal
“At Fitzroy Legal Service, we have clients who have complied with the rules, clearly fit an exemption, get fined and are not able to get a fair review.
The review process is not working even though Victoria Police promised all
fines would be fairly reviewed. People shouldn’t have to go to court to
challenge unfair fines. It’s all very well to say “you can challenge it in
court”, but a lot of our clients are really struggling just to get through the
day. If they take it to court they risk a criminal conviction and even bigger
fines. There needs to be a better and fairer fines review system.”
Concerns have also been raised about the treatment of children and young people by police during the pandemic, with many issued with fines that they have no capacity to pay.
Ariel Couchman, CEO of the Young Peoples’ Legal Rights Centre:
“Among those who have been issued huge fines are children escaping family violence, children from refugee backgrounds and children suffering mental health issues. The current Victorian public health response is punishing children who are already experiencing disadvantage. Victoria Police should be keeping children safe by giving them information and a mask if they don’t have one. Fining children instead of educating them only adds stress to families doing it tough in a pandemic. It also puts children at risk of becoming caught up in a criminal legal system for behaviour that, a few months ago, wouldn’t have been criminal at all.”
Increased police powers should also come with extra oversight by a properly resourced, independent watchdog, like the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, to ensure the powers are properly reviewed and that there is accountability if police overstep the line.
Anthony Kelly, CEO of Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre:
“Policing and coercive responses can result in stigma, fear, and a loss of trust in authorities and undermine preventative health responses. During the HIV/AIDS epidemic police practices such as stops, fines, arrests and harassment increased HIV/AIDS transmission rates in communities most at risk. It is vital we don’t repeat these mistakes in Victoria in 2020.”
The Andrews Government must also continue to engage in a widespread and accessible public education campaign, with increased efforts to provide information to all communities in multiple formats, particularly on the new rules, what is expected of people and the consequences for failing to act in accordance with the new rules.
Damian Stock, CEO of Inner Melbourne Community Legal:
“The Government learnt from the public housing lockdown that it can have confidence in the capability and civic responsibility of the communities it is working with. It can choose to continue to support and resource these communities to keep people safe, rather than adopt an overbearing enforcement approach.”
If people have experienced or witnessed problematic policing related to COVID-19, they can report it to: covidpolicing.org.au.
If people have been treated unfairly by police, or have received a COVID-19 fine, they can contact Fitzroy Legal Service on 0434 136 501 for free legal advice. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can contact VALS on 1800 064 865.
Resources for people affected by COVID-19 are also available on the Justice Connect website here.
Story source: Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service