Time and again Victorians have heard exactly the same message from the head of the force’s Professional Standards Command and from other senior police. The community is assured that police are handling the problem and that addressing such matters is work in progress. But there does not seem to be much progress, and there won’t be while ever the sanctions imposed on individual police officers for police brutality range from virtually no penalties to sanctions that are best described as lenient.
If a member of the public assaulted police or another member of the public in the same way Victorians have recently seen police doing (on 7.30, the result of a joint investigation by the ABC and The Age) they would have been arrested and charged with an offence.
The rule of law dictates that those who break the law by, among other things, inflicting uncalled-for and brutal injuries on others should be treated equally before the law. But are they? Members of the community cannot go around bashing people in the head, pinning them to a wall and violently throwing them to the ground.
But it seems that in circumstances where such behaviour is clearly unwarranted, police can, and when they do the consequences for such behaviour are minor. One of the reasons for the ridiculously lenient sanctions imposed on police who have bashed citizens and shamefully arrested those they have bashed is that members of the same police force have investigated the complaint and decided on the sanctions for the police responsible for the bashings.
Uncalled-for brutal, potentially criminal conduct from those that Victorians have entrusted with extraordinary powers is simply not good enough for several reasons, with at least two being directly related to the adverse consequences such behaviour has for police.
Needlessly bashing members of the community leads to distrust between the people’s police and the community they exist to serve. It is important for the peace and wellbeing of a society that people trust and support their police. If police lose community support, crime rates will rise and the ability of police to solve crimes will fall. This is because most crimes are solved through the community assisting police, by alerting them to suspected and known criminal action and by responding positively to police calls for public assistance when investigating a crime.
Unjustified brutality by some police tarnishes the reputation of the many decent, respectful police officers who abide by the law when interacting with the public.
If Victoria Police Professional Standards Command and senior police continue to respond to police brutality in the same way they have for years, nothing will change, and the force’s long and undistinguished record of failing to deal effectively and decisively with complaints against police will continue.
The system for dealing with complaints against police urgently needs an overhaul but Victorians should not be asked to fund another inquiry before action is taken. The Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission Parliamentary Committee recently undertook an Inquiry into the External Oversight of Police Corruption and Misconduct in Victoria. It issued a well-researched 378-page report that made 68 recommendations to improve the system. What is now required is for the government to put forward the necessary legislation so reform can take place.
A special relationship exists between police and government, and the formidable police union and influential senior command often act as powerful pressure groups. They are capable of influencing police accountability policies so that the system is not as open, transparent, independent and rigorous as it needs to be.
It is vitally important that when serious police accountability matters arise, the relationship between government and those who elect them to office prevails over pressure group politics. The public interest demands no less and it must always take precedence over the vested interests of pressure groups. This is especially important when the matter involves the manner in which police are held accountable for how they use their coercive powers and the sanctions that should apply when they are not exercised according to the law.
Dr Colleen Lewis is an adjunct professor at Monash University. She wrote her PhD thesis on the politics surrounding police accountability policies.