2012: Annus Horribilis – Demand police accountability through elected civilian review boards

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When the Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne declared 2012 a year of action to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody, little did it know that in the very first week of the new year, Kwementyaye Briscoe would be dead after being arrested and taken into police custody in Alice Springs for his own “care.” (See: The shocking death of Mr Briscoe: Family rejects police investigating police, Freedom Socialist Organiser # 9, March 2012).

On 17 September the Northern Territory (NT) Coroner released his report, which catalogues a string of events comprising brutality and callous neglect. He found that some of the police involved were “utterly derelict in their duties” and concluded that the death was “preventable and should not have occurred.”

Fine words. But what are the consequences for those whose actions led to the death of this young Aboriginal man? Very little it would seem. No officer has been sacked over Mr Briscoe’s mistreatment and no criminal charges have been laid. When questioned, the NT Police Commissioner feebly stated that, “lessons had been learnt.”

If the key lesson, which surely must be that NT police and prison authorities have a duty of care when they lock people up, had been learnt, then Kylie Hampton would not be grieving the death in custody of her father, Peter Clarke. Mr Clarke, an Arabana man, died in the Alice Springs hospital on the 3 April 2012 after receiving inadequate medical care in jail. The family was initially told that Mr Clarke’s death was not a death in custody and had to fight to have this recognised. Kylie and the extended family of Mr Clarke are demanding answers. (See: “I will not be silent any more” — A daughter speaks out about a death in custody)

Out of control. The NSW police are armed and dangerous: in 2012 we’ve witnessed gun and taser toting cops taking aim at Aborigines, those suffering from a mental illness, young people and overseas students. In April, the community took to the streets in protest after police seriously injured two Aboriginal teenagers in a brazen Kings Cross shooting. The incident was the third police shooting in NSW in a month!

In March, Brazilian student, Roberto Laudisuo Curti died after police used a taser on him three times. A Freedom of Information request recently resulted in the release of data revealing that NSW police tasered an 84-year-old man with dementia and routinely use tasers on young people, including those as young as 16.

Protecting profit. When it comes to police brutality, another target is trade unionists who withdraw their labour and establish picket lines. Earlier this year, NSW riot police broke a Grafton picket line established to defend 108 pubic sector jobs. But the cops do not always win! On 28 August, despite orchestrated police violence — including the use of capsicum spray — construction workers stood their ground, repelling attempts to break the Grocon picket in Melbourne.

Police accountability. In Victoria the Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre is running a police accountability project. The centre is leading a campaign against racial profiling. Young people from refugee and immigrant communities complain of excessive over-policing to the point of racist harassment. Tamar Hopkins, a solicitor with the centre, has handled more than 200 complaints about police brutality from members of the Afghani, Ethiopian, Sudanese, Somali, Turkish and Vietnamese communities.

As well as assisting those targeted by police, the centre campaigns for the establishment of independent review mechanisms.

Police being assigned to investigate complaints about police, including those about police brutality and deaths in custody, is the routine approach. It produces cover-ups, a lack of transparency and zero accountability.

One concrete improvement would be the establishment of elected civilian review boards. It is crucial that board members are directly elected by and accountable to the community rather than bureaucrats appointed by government. Such boards need to be administratively and financially independent of the police. They also need the tools to perform the role. Mere “advisory bodies” cannot make inroads. Review boards must be given the full authority to investigate police misconduct, subpoena witnesses, and order training, discipline, and sackings.

Elected civilian review boards will not end police violence. In a capitalist society, wherever there are police, there will be police brutality. Because the cops’ main job is to protect big business and private property, this means the use of force to guard the “haves” from the “have-nots” and to repress dissent.

To end police abuse will take a political transformation to a completely different system that does not rely on police to protect the wealthy and their interests against workers and the poor. But these boards could make a real difference now by reducing deaths in custody and police harassment and abuse, making life better for its main targets: Aboriginal people, immigrants, strikers, political activists, the homeless, and people with mental illnesses — especially those who are young. This change in accountability is worth fighting for: get behind the year of action to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Read more: Tamar Hopkins, “Police Must Not Investigate Their Own,” 29 May 2012 in New Matilda: newmatilda.com/2012/05/29/police-must-not-investigate-their-own

Take action! Stop Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Spring Protest, Saturday, 10 November, 11 am, Steps of Old GPO, Corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Street, Melbourne

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