An avalanche of news stories from people who have experienced excessive force, racist policing or other police misconduct, and tried unsuccessfully to make complaints, provide a shocking glimpse into the failings of Victoria's police complaints system.
Clients of Robinson Gill Lawyers, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, Fitzroy Legal Service and Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre have revealed the failings of a system where police investigate police, after disturbing incidents including:
- One person left too terrified to complain after being beaten, abused, pepper-sprayed and filmed by six police who attended a mental health call-out
- A young education employee, Jessie Scarlett-Rhodes, who was handcuffed and hurled headfirst into a divvy van, causing head injuries and a fractured nose. She was then charged by police after she made a complaint, and had her complaint dismissed following a police internal investigation.
- One person being repeatedly punched, hit with a baton and stomped on by police after his arrest. His excessive force complaint was dismissed following a police investigation.
Jeremy King, lawyer for Robinson Gill who successfully represented Jessie Scarlett-Rhodes in her civil claim against Victoria Police, said:
"It is not uncommon for police accused of misconduct to concoct criminal charges to justify police conduct or to pressure a complainant. There are huge objectivity issues with police self-investigating. Internal police investigators often don't seek out all witnesses and don’t search for CCTV. Sometimes police are investigating officers in the same station or that they know.”
Lauren Caulfield, from Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre's Police Accountability Project, said:
"This is not a case of one or two bad apples, or the occasional error in an investigation. It is the story of a broken police complaints system in Victoria - where police investigate themselves, victims are locked out of the process, dismissed or punished for complaining, and police investigators overwhelmingly find in favour of police.”
"The officer who was present during the incident where Ms Scarlet-Rhodes was injured by police also played a key role in the investigation that dismissed her complaint. This same officer was the subject of repeated complaints of police brutality and racism against young people from the Carlton housing estate by our centre back in 2012. How can the community have any faith in this system?"
Meghan Fitzgerald, lawyer with the Fitzroy Legal Service, who represent a client who was assaulted by police during his arrest, with the incident captured on CCTV, said,
“These individual cases are examples of a much wider problem. It is extremely challenging for an individual to tell their stories and go against institutional power, particularly where there has been significant violence and structural disadvantage. As lawyers we cannot offer protection outside the court room. Working as a community lawyer over the past 10 years I am yet to see a complaint substantiated, even in those cases where people have successfully defended charges laid after they complained, or civil proceedings have been successful."
"Many cases present lost opportunities for the police force to address misconduct and to reflect on the way in which policing activities may be impacting marginalized communities.
Hugh de Kretser, Executive Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:
"Investigations into serious police misconduct must be independent and effective. It’s in the public interest, the interests of victims and the interests of police officers who do the right thing. It is also required by international human rights law."
"If the Andrews Government is serious about transparency and accountability, it must reform Victoria’s failing police complaints system. It must ensure that an independent body investigates all serious complaints of police misconduct."
Since 2006, clients of the Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre have made 109 complaints to the Office of Police Integrity, IBAC or Victoria Police about their experiences. 103 of the 106 complaints were referred to Victoria Police for self-investigation. In all but 3 of these 103 complaints Victoria Police investigators found in favour of the police. From available IBAC data, less than 4% of all assault complaints about police are substantiated.
For further comment and client case studies:
Jeremy King, Robinson Gill Lawyers 0401 308 012
Meghan Fitzgerald, Fitzroy Legal Service 0450 977 447
Lauren Caulfield, Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre 0408 748 939
Michelle Bennett, Human Rights Law Centre 0419 100 519
Wayne Muir, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service 0490 889 147