Truth telling is powerful. It can shine a spotlight on systemic atrocities. This is exactly what the Yoorrook Justice Commission is doing. Its official mandate is to inquire into both historical and ongoing injustices against First Peoples in Victoria since colonisation. This body, established in May 2021, is Australia’s first formal truth telling commission. Amongst the stories Yoorrook has formally documented is the brutal role of the police.
Earlier this year the Chief Commissioner of Police, Shane Patton, appeared before Yoorrook and read an apology for the role played by Victoria Police since 1853, when the force was established. In the months prior to Patton’s uniformed appearance, the Yoorrook Justice Commissioners heard directly from First Nations people about their treatment at the hands of the police. This included Gunditjmara woman, Doreen Lovett, whose son, Tommy, was the victim of police brutality in 2016. Having been wrongly identified as a suspected car thief, Tommy was assaulted by police and still lives with the trauma today. As well as hearing about a litany of police misconduct, Yoorrook has heard testimony about state-sanctioned violence against children, racial slurs, excessive force and over-policing. These practices have led to over-incarceration and deaths in police custody. Under questioning from the Commissioners, Patton acknowledged structural racism, yet the pattern of racial profiling and police abuse continues unabated.
The current system of police accountability in Victoria is utterly inadequate. At the heart of the problem is a lack of independence. Of all the complaints referred to the Independent Broadband Anti-Corruption Commission, 99% are referred back to police to investigate themselves. Surprise, surprise. In most instances when the police investigate themselves, they find they have done nothing wrong. The Lovett family withdrew their complaint about Tommy’s assault after finding out that it had been referred back to the same station where the abuser worked! This type of response is hardly unusual.
Pressure is mounting for an end to the practice of police investigating police. A coalition of justice organisations, which includes the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and the Police Accountability Project, is calling for the establishment of a Police Ombudsman who will be completely independent from the police. They call for the body to be appropriately resourced and given the powers to hold the police accountable. They also advocate that the body provide timely outcomes and be culturally safe, particularly for First Nations people. This initiative would be a big improvement. But to ensure that the body is responsive to the grass roots, it must also be directly elected by the community and open to recall.
There’s much to be said for the value of truth telling. But as the terrible truths of racial profiling and police brutality become ever clearer, we need powerful accountability mechanisms that are under community control.