Lets help Victoria Police beat racism

The consultation phase of the Victoria Police inquiry into racial profiling has four weeks to go. Victoria Police are currently accepting submissions from the public about their ‘field contact’ policy and cross-cultural training. Community networks, youth agencies, Aboriginal, health and legal organisations are preparing powerful submissions about the impacts of discriminatory policing and what we, as community agencies, expect as a minimum response from Victoria Police. The call to prevent racial profiling is growing.

Abhorrently racist stubby holders, produced by police officers in both Sunshine and Bairnsdale have been exposed over recent weeks, along with an emailed photo, described by Chief Commissioner Ken Lay as "mind-numbing" showing two female officers posing with an arrested Sudanese man. This very recent photo, sounding very much like a 'trophy shot', commonly seen from war zones, has resulted in the two officers being suspended, and tells us something about how far Victoria Police needs to go before everyday practice meets basic human rights standards.

We welcome Chief Commissioner Lay's firm condemnation of these racist incidents. "You'll probably see significant action by Victoria Police against members who behave in an overtly racist way," he told ABC radio recently. But these incidents only reflect what is happening on the streets of Melbourne and in regional Victoria. They reflect the experiences of so many of our clients who report horrific racist assaults and beatings, and so many members of the public who experience extraordinary attention from police each and every day. 

"I've been stopped countless times during my mid teens for random searches and the requiring of my ID. So much to the extent police officers memorised the names of myself and that of my peers," reports a 20 year old Somalian Australian who has made a submission to the inquiry. 'Countless' field contacts with police, even though not all would involve any 'overt' racism, have an enormously detrimental, health, psychological and exclusionary impact on young people and their communities.

Daniel Haile-Michael, the lead applicant in the Race Discrimination Case which sparked this inquiry, has consistently articulated why racially discriminatory policing needs to stop:

“Racial profiling makes you feel like you will never belong in society. That you’re not welcome here, and that you are a second-class citizen no matter what … For any migrant community, police are a reflection of the government and the mainstream community.”

As a nation, Australia has been enriched economically, socially and culturally by successive waves of migrants and refugees. Our immigration program is lauded as a ‘secret to our nation’s success’ and an invaluable economic and cultural asset for Victoria. Victoria claims to be a global leader in multicultural affairs, promoting a cohesive multicultural, multilingual and multifaith society.

But despite this, many years of brave testimony from Aboriginal and African Australian communities, media reports and the Race Discrimination Case itself, have all highlighted systemic racism within and by Victorian police.

Reynah Tang, President of the Law Institute of Victoria said last month that:

“Racial profiling is discriminatory and often affects the most marginalised minority groups. It has health and social consequences, including making people fearful and mistrustful of police. We need to banish racial profiling entirely.”

We couldn’t agree more.

The real challenge for Victoria Police is moving beyond the idea of 'bad apples' - individuals who display overtly racist views.

There are two systemic issues at play which are yet to be acknowledged by the Chief Commissioner.

One is the antagonistic and often racist culture that persists in many regions and police stations toward sections of our communities.

The second is a more widespread 'implicit bias' within operational policing that sees such a huge disproportion of police contacts between white kids and black kids.

These biases are tolerated, ignored, minimised or re-enforced by Sergeants and more senior officers and training fails to address these often hidden and unconscious stereotypes and assumptions. These are the more difficult systemic issues that we hope will be revealed to Commissioner Lay from this inquiry.

International experience tells us that real change can happen.

The recent UK Stop and Think Again Report showed that when racial profiling is reduced, police are not only more effective at solving crime, but are more trusted by the communities in which they work. The changes adopted in the UK include training in lawful and proportionate use of the stop powers and the transparent collection and monitoring of racial bias stats down to the local level and individual officers. The UK police regions concerned have seen reductions of up to 50 per cent in overall stops and, in some regions at least, a fall in disproportionate usage against ethnic minorities.

The Ottawa Police Service also recently began its Traffic Stop Race Data Project, during which Ottawa Police Officers, by their observation only, will record the race of the driver at all traffic stops for a two year period.

The race data collection project both acknowledges and seeks to address community concerns about racial profiling and is seen as a crucial step in ensuring bias free policing. This exemplary openness and accountability would go a long way in building community trust and confidence in Victoria.

We have already outlined the key steps we believe will be most effective in ending racial profiling. Far more robust and assertive anti-racism training that effectively trains out deeply held prejudicial stereotypes, along with transparent race stop data collection and monitoring will be significant steps towards more inclusive and human rights focused policing.

We now have an easy to fill out online form and submission templates available for organisations and individuals. The latest submission from a young African Australia stated:

"I have seen first hand on how this issue affected many young people including me. Additionally, I know of friends and relatives that were brutally beaten by police without provocation. What's more, the issue affects the whole society, as it causes division and alienation, which is why I wish to submit this inquiry. I am calling for greater police accountability in the use of police powers to stop and search approaches."

Another 17 year old African Australian has written:

“I have been interrogated and feeling uncomfortable to even walk or wait around train stations because I am afraid of being asked for my identification for no reason.”

There will be many more accounts like this before the consultation ends on July 31st.

It’s heartening that Victoria Police has taken on this inquiry seriously and is genuinely willing to listen to community concerns. Calls to enact accountability mechanisms to deal with racism within and by Victoria Police will continue to grow as this inquiry progresses.

If you are concerned about racism and its impacts in our society or are working with vulnerable members of our community that may have had negative and troubling encounters with the police you are well placed to contribute.

All members of our community should be able to lead healthy, safe lives free from being stopped by police simply because of their race or ethnicity. Together, let's help Victoria Police beat racism.

Anthony Kelly is the Executive Officer at Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre.