By Paul Gregoire
Footage has emerged showing Victoria police officers ramming a civilian in the back with their car, before a number of officers swarm him on the ground. One officer stomps on his head, while other footage seems to suggest this was followed by a sly knee to the skull.
It turns out this was no crook walking about in the middle of traffic, but rather a mental health patient in a state of duress. And Victoria police has become so emboldened during the pandemic that it believes using a car to facilitate arrest is warranted, as is laying in the boot.
The Victoria Police Force said in a statement that “during the highly dynamic incident a police officer was assaulted”. While the man’s father explained that his son had just been hospitalised for severe mental illness. And his wife is now seeking legal recourse.
After the incident that took place near a hospital in the Melbourne suburb of Epping, the man was placed in an induced coma.
Victoria police has sent the incident to the Professional Standards Command for review, with the usual police shouldn’t be investigating police commentary following.
And while this incident stands out due to the unbridled force officers used, it’s hardly an anomaly. Rather it’s one of an escalating series of incidents involving Victoria police commissioner Shane Patton’s officers using excessive force as a policing tool during the state’s second lockdown.
Responding to verbal aggression
During the first national lockdown Victoria police was already being scrutinised for the arbitrary and inconsistent manner in which it was enforcing public health rules. A coalition of community legal groups established the COVID Policing website to monitor police behaviour in response.
Although it wasn’t until early July, when 500 police officers were sent in to enforce a hard lockdown on 3,000 public housing tower residents – that’s one officer for every six civilians – that it seemed Victoria police might be getting a little carried away with its pandemic policing.
Victorian authorities were criticised for the way they handled the lockdown of the Flemington and North Melbourne towers – which occurred after a number of residents tested positive to COVID-19 – as the occupants were given no warning and were unable to stock up on essentials.
As a local charity group was conducting a food delivery for residents in the towers, one man trying to carry in some items was set upon by a number of Victoria police officers who did the usual: surround him, wrestle him to the ground and then lean down upon him with their weight.
Victoria police went on to release the usual statement justifying the actions of officers. On this occasion it was due to the man having been “verbally aggressive” towards them before they forcibly overwhelmed him.
Melbourne was placed under stage 3 lockdown in July to counter a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. And as of 2 August, the volume was turned up as the city went into stage 4 lockdown, which includes a curfew and mandatory facemask wearing.
This means the streets are almost completely empty except for Victoria police.
On 12 August, footage of a police officer choking a woman in Collingwood began doing the rounds of the internet. And what was hard to conceive was this older officer was dragging the 21-year-old woman along by the throat, all for not wearing a facemask.
The woman’s friend filmed the incident and repeatedly screamed out that she had a doctor’s certificate excusing her from wearing a mask. The male officer eventually pushed her to the ground and leant down upon her until a police van pulled up.
The attending officers then stuck her in the back of the vehicle and drove her down to the local station to charge her with resisting arrest and assaulting police. The latter charge was in relation to her having kicked out at another officer whilst she was being choked by the first.
And it came to light last week that the Professional Standards Command has since cleared the chokehold officer of any wrongdoing. And Victoria police also confirmed that the woman was exempt from wearing a facemask, so she wasn’t fined for not having one on.
At 5.30 am on 3 September, 33-year-old Noongar man Korey Penny was riding to work, when a Victoria police officer spear-tackled him off his bike and injured his arm, which led to an ambulance having to pick the civilian up and take him to hospital.
As Penny tells it, he was riding along the footpath, when he passed an officer who told him to “fucking walk your bike”. He continued cycling passed when he saw four more officers up ahead and one of them tackled him to the ground.
The officers circled him and left him “crawling around on the ground like an animal”, while one called him a “black cunt”.
No reason was given to Penny as to why he was thrown off his bike. The officers were in the area looking for a reported burglar.
Victoria police later announced that its officers had stopped Penny after seeing him riding along the footpath without functioning lights. It rejected his claims that there was a racial element to the incident. And it added it was “satisfied with the use of force in relation to this incident”.
One anxious moment
Last Saturday, Natalie Bonnett was forcibly removed from her car at a COVID-19 checkpoint in the Victorian town of Wallan, 60 kilometres north of Melbourne. The incident occurred after police questioned the 29-year-old about illegally fixing her mobile phone to the windscreen.
An officer asked for her name and address, and as she wasn’t forthcoming with that information, he demanded she get out of the car. Bonnett didn’t do this, so the officer opened the door, leant in and dragged her out, as the man in the passenger seat screamed out that she suffers from anxiety.
A Victoria police spokesperson said on Sunday that the woman had committed a number of offences in not providing her details, and it was expected she’d be charged with resisting arrest, assaulting police, offensive language and failure to state her name and produce her licence.
A civil society response
Victoria police has recently set some other COVID policing precedents as well. Officers raided the home of a woman who merely posted information about an anti-lockdown protest online, while it sent in the entire riot squad to deal with a few anti-lockdown protesters last Sunday.
The Victoria-based Police Accountability Project has released a list of ten reasons why it’s concerned about pandemic policing in its state. These include police not being good at interpreting exceptions, the curfew being a danger and police discretion being exercised differently for different people.
The ninth concern is that the heavy-handed policing approach undermines taking any other options, as placing all the responsibility on the police doesn’t only lead to unjust outcomes, but it also robs civil society from taking a community-based response to the public health crisis.
“Armed with local knowledge, tailored and responsive for particular communities these responses could have been arguably far more effective than police,” the project makes quite clear.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.
This piece was originally published on the Sydney Criminal Lawyers blog and is republished here with the author’s kind permission.