BY RYAN HARDING
Human rights activists say Australians, predominately Victorians, have been left feeling “intimidated, confused, stressed, scared and shaken” by police officers enforcing social distancing restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Human and legal rights advocacy organisations have formed the umbrella group COVID Policing to ensure temporary measures giving police extra powers to help suppress the spread of COVID-19 do not infringe on people’s rights.
COVID Policing received 79 reports of police misconduct between April 6 and May 4, with 56 of those complaints originating in Victoria - the highest of any state. By comparison, New South Wales received 12 reports in the same time frame.
Melbourne Activist Legal Support worker Ilo Guerrero said accountability was especially important during this crisis because police “hold extraordinary powers over ordinary citizens”.
“If we’re not monitoring that constantly, or not doing it well enough, there’s the possibility that these powers are going to be misused in some way - like over-policing certain communities and under-policing others,” Mr Guerrero said.
“The only real oversight they have is an internal complaints system, which we have been saying for years is not good enough.”
Mr Guerrero said this “lack of accountability” could “make it harder to bring police powers back in line” when restrictions are relaxed.
According to Mr Guerrero, recent controversial conduct by Victoria Police has “seeded distrust” in citizens.
“When police do need to extend their powers for the good of society, they are looked at with mistrust because their actions beforehand were not up to par.”
A witness contacted COVID Policing at the beginning of May after they saw police officers confront a person “visibly experiencing homelessness” in Fitzroy.
Speaking to the person after the officers had left, the witness learned they were “recently released from prison, had no housing, and were being supported by the local community”.
According to the witness, the person was issued $3,600 in fines.
A person caring for their mother who has “significant health problems” also contacted COVID Policing after two police officers approached them as the pair rested from a walk on a park bench in Parkville.
The officers allegedly asked if they “knew what was happening in the world” and if they “have Facebook”, before issuing them a fine.
COVID Policing’s first weekly report came a fortnight after Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced a 500-person strong taskforce to enforce social distancing restrictions in Victoria.
Victoria Police has the power to issue fines of up to $1,652 to individuals failing to adhere to social distancing and lockdown orders.
Human Rights Law Centre legal director Shahleena Musk said on the Centre’s website that governments must commit to “strong safeguards to ensure [police] powers don’t go too far”.
“While police have an important role to play in COVID-19 prevention efforts, it is absolutely critical that governments make sure these sweeping powers end when this crisis ends,” Ms Musk said.
She also said it was critical the powers “are reviewed and are not just a free pass for heavy handed policing” and there is “independent oversight of any police wrongdoing”.
According to The Age, Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton issued an internal memo to officers in early April warning inconsistency and lack of discretion was damaging public confidence in Victoria Police.
“I am concerned that there continues to be an inconsistent approach from our members when enforcing the directives of the Chief Health Officer,” Mr Patton said.
Officers can now only issue fines after attaining the approval of their supervisors.