End the cover-up of police abuse Victorian campaign to stop police investigating-police

Campaigning for Community Control over Police in New York.
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Melton last November: just following orders. The role of Police under capitalism was very visible in 2015. They facilitated fascists in marching, but brutality pepper sprayed anti-fascists.

There was a bright spot last year in the ongoing struggle to hold Victoria Police to account. Nassir Bare, a young Ethiopian man, won the right to have his claims of assault and racial abuse investigated by the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC). Bare has been fighting since 2009 when, at just age 17, the police assaulted him in Williamstown. Bare complains he was capsicum-sprayed and racially abused. In 2010 he lodged a formal complaint with the Office of Police Integrity, the forerunner of IBAC. It refused to investigate the complaint, ruling that it was “not in the public interest” and offered to refer it back to the police. He sought a judicial review of the decision but lost the case in the Supreme Court in 2013, before winning in the Victorian Court of Appeal last June.

The Police Accountability Project (PAP), run by the Flemington Kensington Community Centre (FKCLC), says, “Mr Bare deserved accolades for his brave and persistent pursuit of justice.” It’s been a long fight, which is far from over. Other tenacious victims of police abuse have fought decades for an outcome.

In 1993, Corinna Horvath was brutally assaulted by Victoria Police, who smashed down her door. It took 21 years before the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled in her favour, finding that the internal processes of police investigating themselves are flawed.

Bare’s and Horvath’s experiences with the police are not unusual. What makes these cases stand out is that they had the evidence, the legal advocates and the tenacity to persist. Police use coercive and invasive powers or force as a matter of routine. The impact falls most harshly on young people, those with a mental illness, people from refugee and migrant backgrounds, Indigenous Australians, unionists and people exercising their democratic right to protest. Witness the Reclaim Australia rally last July, when police facilitated the march of fascists and neo-Nazis, while using capsicum spray against more than 100 anti-fascists, including medics treating the injured.

Complaints cover-up. There are currently three ways to lodge a complaint against the Victoria police: at a police station, through the Police Conduct Unit or with IBAC. While IBAC has the word “independent” in its title, it is anything but! Almost all complaints received are sent back to the police for investigation.

Despite one of its functions being to “identify, expose and investigate police personnel misconduct,” IBAC has a woeful record. Its attitude to complainants is appalling, asserting that it is not required to be transparent or explain the reasons for its decisions to complainants, and is not required to adhere to natural justice when making decisions. Additionally, it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

The PAP recently released a policy paper advocating the independent investigation of complaints against the police. The report makes compelling reading and includes case studies documenting the experiences of clients from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan.

Its findings highlight that, while there are many meritorious complaints, police are rarely prosecuted or disciplined. The simple fact is that when police investigate police, complaints get covered up — less than 4% of assault complaints are substantiated.

Using the experience of its own clients, FKCLC paints a grim picture. Since 2006, their clients made more than 70 complaints about police with all but three internally investigated (ie investigated by police). In every instance of internal investigation, the police found in favour of fellow officers.

The movement to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody has long campaigned to end the practice of police investigating police. After Redfern teenager TJ Hickey was killed during a police chase, officers from nearby Leichhardt failed to investigate properly, and the family believe that there was tampering with evidence, including TJ’s bike. In the infamous Palm Island case, Queensland police officer Chris Hurley collected police from the airport and hosted them at his home for dinner before they examined his role in the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee.

PAP outlines many reasons for the bias that routinely occurs during internal police investigations and provides substantiating examples. There’s an entrenched culture that accepts abuse. Additionally, complainants are viewed as motivated to lie; internal investigators see it as their role to pick holes in the complainant’s story while uncritically accepting police accounts. Complainants are sometimes intimidated by investigators and urged to drop their complaint.

Having clearly articulated the case for change, FKCLC launched an online petition through change.org, It’s time an independent body investigated police violence in Victoria. It calls on Gavin Jennings, Victoria’s Special Minister of State to take action.

Which model? PAP argues that a complaints system requires five features. It must be capable of conducting an investigation, prompt and open to public scrutiny. It must also be a victim-centred approach that enables those on the receiving end of abuse to fully participate in the investigation. This means there must be no victimisation of complainants, outreach is required to vulnerable communities, information must be translated and interpreters made available. Finally, at the heart of any new system must be its independence from the police — institutionally, but also practically, culturally and politically.

After examining a range of models for independent review of the police, PAP recommends the Police Ombudsman’s Office of Northern Ireland. This model employs specialist civilian investigators. Also, police are obliged by law to respond. The Ombudsman has the power to recommend disciplinary action and prosecution and is subject to public scrutiny.

While the Freedom Socialist Party, supports the FKCLC/PAP campaign to demand an overhaul of the current system, the Northern Ireland model does not go far enough. A key flaw is that the Ombudsman is appointed by the Queen and is accountable to the Northern Ireland parliament. It is crucial to end the practice of police investigating police, but independent bodies with the mandate and resources to control the police need to be directly elected by and accountable to the communities who suffer most at the hands of the police. Independence from the police is an important step, but community control is vital.

Campaigning for Community Control over Police in New York.

Serving whom? Protecting what? But even with the best mechanisms in place, while we might curb the abuse, the problem of holding police to account will not be solved.

In 2013, a group of African youth won a case in the Federal Court, proving they were regularly stopped, searched, questioned and sometimes assaulted simply for being Black. As part of the settlement, the police acknowledged that racial profiling is unacceptable and agreed to institute a stop-and-search receipting program to enhance transparency. A pilot was launched in 2015, but police are not required to record the race or ethnicity of the person they stop, defeating the purpose of the program.

In 2015, the coroner criticised police for being complacent for failing to adequately monitor a mentally ill man who died after they capsicum-sprayed him and dumped him in the back of a divvy van. There were reports of predatory behaviour by police against domestic violence survivors and other victims of crime. And the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission broke the news that almost a thousand police employees suffered sexually predatory behaviour, sexual harassment and sexual discrimination at the hands of police officers!

Improved training, hiring more women, queers, First Nations people and people of colour in the force or recruiting cops who care about the community they police will not, as some suggest, address the institutionalised issues. Individuals who have entered the police force with this goal in mind have tried and failed. When issued orders by their commanders, these individuals will obey! No matter how repressive the order — clamping down on public drinking in parks, breaking picket lines, using capsicum spray or riding horses into crowds protesting injustice.

The police as an institution are not neutral and never have been. The role of the police is to uphold the status quo and protect the interests of the class in power — the capitalist class. Police abuse will be a fact of life as long as we have a social and economic system that exploits the majority for the benefit of a few. Through building a mass movement to demand that the community is empowered to hold the abusers to account, we’ll hasten the day when the majority truly rules.

Recommended reading from the Freedom Socialist

• Steven Strauss, True-blue servants of the ruling class: 500 years of police brutality
• Monica Hill, For community control over the police! Now is the time to demand elected civilian review boards

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