Report: Upholding Our Rights: Report into police use of force

Reform of the regulation, training and monitoring of police use of force is necessary to enhance community safety and ensure Victoria Police comply with human rights.

Victoria Police use force, on average, every 2.5 hours. Almost three quarters of these incidents involve the use of capsicum spray. There have been at least 12 people shot dead by Victoria Police in the last decade, while numerous others have died in police custody.

A new report by the Human Rights Law Centre has found that human rights-compliant regulation, training and monitoring of Victoria Police would reduce the incidence of use of force, provide better guidance and support to police in enforcing the law and protecting the community, and increase public confidence in policing.

The report, Upholding Our Rights, is based on an extensive survey of international best practice in human rights-compliant policing, together with consultations with people with mental illness, Indigenous peoples, and young people of African descent. Input was also obtained from Acting Chief Commissioner of Police, Ken Lay.

“Current systems for regulating, monitoring and investigating police use of force are inadequate,” said Anna Brown of the Human Rights Law Centre. “In recent years, Victoria Police has made welcome improvements to training, including by promoting the importance of human rights and increasing the emphasis on communication and conflict de-escalation. However, nearly three years on from the fatal shooting of 15 year old Tyler Cassidy, it is clear that more needs to be done to reduce the frequency of incidents involving the use of force by police in Victoria.”

According to Ms Brown, “The next step must be to reform the law and the Victoria Police Manual to make clear that force is only lawful as a last resort and when strictly necessary. It should be used with the utmost restraint and in a manner which minimises damage and injury.”

In addition to containing constructive and practical recommendations as to police training and law reform, the report also recommends better monitoring and investigation of police use of force.

“Our research and consultations indicate that excessive use of force is a significant issue for people with mental illness, homeless people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and young people, particularly of African descent. It also identifies a real risk of ‘mission’ creep’. Force should only be used to safeguard life and property, not for behavioural or compliance purposes,” said Ms Brown. “An independent body, such as the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, should be mandated and resourced to monitor where and when police are using force, for what purpose, and against whom.”

The report also reveals that Victoria’s systems for investigating police-related deaths are incompatible with international standards and Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights. “Currently, if someone dies from a police shooting or in police custody, the investigation is conducted by Victoria Police, giving rise to a serious conflict of interest,” said Ms Brown. “Human rights law and international best practice require that such investigations be conducted by a body that is fully independent of police. An independent investigative body would not only reduce the risk of collusion or corruption, but increase public trust and confidence in police processes.”

Ms Brown said that “If the Victorian Government is serious about transparency and accountability, we need to ensure that these principles are upheld when Victorian citizens are injured or killed by Victoria Police.”

The Human Rights Law Centre hopes that the report will be a useful resource and guide to reform for Victoria Police, the government and civil society. “Human rights can provide a valuable framework for police regulation and action that emphasises human dignity while also enabling police to use force in a way that is lawful and enhances community safety. As Victoria Police has itself written, ‘human rights protection is synonymous with good policing in liberal democratic societies’.” In his input to the report, the Acting Police Commissioner wrote that Victoria Police is “committed to working closely with stakeholders to improve the processes and training relating to the effective use of tactical options as well as investigation processes.”

The report was supported through a grant from the Legal Services Board of Victoria Grants Program.

Contact:

Anna Brown, Human Rights Law Centre – (03) 8636 4432 or 0422 235 522 or anna.brown@hrlc.org.au

Documents:

Upholding Our Rights: Towards Best Practice in Police Use of Force – Final Report

Upholding Our Rights – Background Research Paper