Victoria Police

The front page of Sunday’s Herald Sun bore a message from on high for Victoria’s political caste, the Police Association have issued their ‘pre-election wish list’. There is an election next year, and support or opposition from the coppers ‘union’ will make or break political careers.

Oddly, the coverage in Melbourne’s press (and in particular in the Herald Sun who carried it as front page news) was not outrage at the sheer gumption of a ‘union’ setting a price on an election, but rather a ringing endorsement.

There is a disturbingly close relationship between the Police Association, the Herald Sun, and the Liberal Party in Victoria. During the Simon Overland affair (2010-11) this relationship was blatant.

The Victoria Police Association was at war with the Police Commissioner. The parliamentary secretary for police (Liberal MP and former Police Officer Bill Tilley) and an advisor to the deputy Premier ran a campaign out of the deputy Premier’s office to destabilize the Police Commissioner in favour of the Police Association’s preferred replacement (Sir Ken Jones). The Herald Sun uncritically published their leaks and forcefully backed the Police Association position (for particular coverage of the media’s role, see Media Watch, Look Both Ways Before Crossing the Line).

An investigation by the Office of Police Integrity (Full OPI report: Crossing the Line) rocked the Baillieu Liberal government. The Police Association had the last laugh when the Liberal Government abolished the Office of Police Integrity in favour of a new “Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission”, a commission that by its own assessment, was designed to be a toothless tiger.

The power of the Police Association has continued to grow since the Overland affair. At every election the Police Association issues a set of demands, the Liberal Party and the Herald Sun quickly attack Labor for failing to concede to these demands fast enough, and Labor hurries to offer more in an attempt to head off the prospect of Police Association retribution.

In 2010 the Police Association wanted 1500 new police; the Liberal Party jumped, promising 1700 police and armed guards at every train station to boot. In 2014 they wanted “anywhere between 1500 and 2000 additional frontline police in the next term of government”. Then Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews promised to deliver.

This elections’ set of demands is more modest: the Police Association wants an extra 500 members and some new toys. This would be on top of last year’s commitment by the Andrews government to recruit a further 2,729 new police and rebuild a number of police stations (it’s crept up to 3,139 new police in recent media releases).

Police recruitment is big business for the Police Association, as John Silvester pointed out in an article earlier this year:

“Every time the government of the day promises to boost numbers it makes the Association more powerful – the recent announcement of a net increase of 3000 will boost revenue by $2.5 million in membership dues.

As it stands the Association makes nearly $500,000 a fortnight in subscriptions, owns its own National Trust building in East Melbourne, a swag of holiday properties, has legal officers, welfare staff, runs a legacy program for police families and has assets of around $45 million.”

But the Police Association’s agenda goes well beyond a desire for more dues-paying members. The Police Association loves new gadgets, new weapons, new powers, and greater impunity.

This election they want guns that shoot GPS trackers, and legal indemnity for police “who take reasonable steps to end pursuits”. That last demand is particularly concerning.

Car-chase pursuits, aside from being great fun, kill people and destroy property. Unfortunately, killjoys (also known as experts backed up by evidence) have repeatedly suggested that police pursuits are largely redundant in the information age, where high quality police cameras and license plate readers ensure that almost everyone is identified and caught eventually.

Whilst other states have moved to restricting the circumstances in which police are permitted to engage in high speed pursuits, the Victorian Police Association seems determined to push back. They want their chases, and they’re dead set against legal consequences for officers who endanger lives.

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Victoria has seen an alarming growth in the size, powers and weaponry employed by a dazzling array of “specialist police”.

Pepper spray was introduced to the Victoria Police arsenal in the late 1990s, it was meant to provide police with ‘options between shouting and shooting’. The Victoria Police manual “very clearly specified that it should only be used in really violent or confrontational situations of serious physical confrontation”. Guidelines restricting the use of pepper spray to situations of “serious physical confrontation” disappeared from the Police Manual in 2011.

Update: These guidelines were reinstated following advocacy by Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre in 2011, thanks for the correction AK!.

Pepper spray is now liberally used by both Police and Protective Services Officers. Public Order Response Team members now routinely carry MK 9 OC foam cans, it’s manufacturer describes the MK9 canister as a “crowd management product” that can deliver damage to skin, eyes and airways across a wide arc at over 25 feet.

A police officer engaging with some members of the public.

The Police Association similarly backed the introduction of tasers in the aftermath of the police shooting of Tyler Cassidy. Again this ‘less lethal’ electric weapon was meant to be used as a alternative to a firearm in very specific situations, unsurprisingly as tasers have become more widespread, so has usage creep.

Every growth in police powers and equipment results in the greater use of police violence and police weaponry. In March this year, the Critical Incident Response Team was equipped with new SIG Sauer automatic “machine guns”. In July, when general duties officers should probably have told a party goer to bin the prop gun that was part of his Joker costume, police instead dispatched CIRT, who then shot two people.

Update: The Age, Dec 13, ‘Cops alter story on Inflation shooting in legal defence’. Not only were two shot, one of the victims was shot, tackled by multiple police, punched repeatedly, and tasered multiple times.

In 2011, then Police Commissioner Simon Overland announced the formation of the Public Order Response Team. The “definitely not a riot squad” consisted of forty-two officers. In the 2016 state budget, the Andrews government shelled out for new robocop armour and training and by March this year Public Order Response was home to 324 officers. The batons, body armour and pepper spray of the “Public Order Response Team” are now the face of Victoria Police at an increasingly wide array of otherwise peaceful public demonstrations.

Members of the Public Order Response Team represent Victoria Police at a demonstration.

In December 2016, the Andrews government announced the creation of a “New York-style” “high-tech monitoring hub”. Today the government announced we’re getting a “high-tech” “terrorism warning system”, with police controlled loud-speakers to go up across the CBD.

Officially Victoria Police do not spy on or seek to disrupt lawful critics of the government. The infamous Special Branch was abolished by Parliament in 1982, but its various substitutes continue. The Security Intelligence Group was busted spying on activists in 2008, and was in turn abolished in 2011. Nonetheless, Victoria Police’s Intelligence and Covert Support Command remains, and the modern descendants of Victoria’s political police continue to operate, and activists continue to report being doorknocked and approached.

The legal powers of these specialist police units are growing too. New laws banning masks within “designated areas” were adopted this year, the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Public Order) Act 2017 also includes powers for police to simply ban people from “designated areas” without them having committed any offense at all.

The original “designated areas” legislation, adopted in 2009 on the back of a “law and order” panic about knives on trains, has become an all-purpose piece of legislation for suspending civil rights during protests. Police now routinely “designate” areas where protests are likely in order to suspend an increasing array of civil rights (in particular those around searches).

This same cycle of security theatre gave us PSOs on train stations. These poorly trained, well armed, and bored mint-a-cops were rolled out across the train network in 2012. They now routinely intimidate commuters, start fights, and cost $80 million a year with little appreciable impact on crime at railway stations. The Andrews government loves PSOs so much they want to hire hundreds more of them to guard supermarkets. The dues alone are a windfall to the police association.

Growing police powers, expanding “specialist” forces, and a general increase in the size of Victoria Police are having consequences. At protests and demonstrations, ‘policing by consent’ has given way to the spray and batons of ever present ‘robo-cops’. Young people, migrants, homeless persons and others now encounter the sheer joy that is PSO harassment across the public transport network. The police force increasingly claims the right to determine who is allowed to demonstration, express dissent, or appear in particular public spaces, and on what terms. The state government and Melbourne City Council (for example) routinely use the police to harass and move-on homeless people in the city, in all manner of areas, violence is substituted for effective social policy. And every increase in the size and powers of the police force further increases its weight as an institution, and flows on to buttress the political power of the Police Association.

The growing weight of policing bears down on migrant and Indigenous communities, it bears down on the young, particularly in working class areas, and it bears down on public dissent and protest.

More police, more powers, and more petty laws mean greater harassment, greater control, and greater criminalization. Unless this growth is challenged, the increasing size and power of the police force, and the corrupting influence of the Police Association in politics, will bear increasingly bitter fruit for all but the wealthiest in our society.

Bonus!

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Victoria Police utilize hundreds of fake Facebook accounts to manage their expansive social media presence; their poor online security practices with these accounts have exposed their entire social media team.

Last week, a group of homelessness activists in Melbourne announced they would be holding a public forum to discuss “Melbourne’s rough sleeping ban”.

Shortly after posting this information to a public campaign Facebook page, organizers received a cryptic message from an individual claiming to be from Victoria Police:

This is Victoria Police. We’ve been informed of your protest action and want to let you know we’ll be monitoring this event with interest.

The message originated from a “Mark Darryl”, on an account with the URL slug markd.bayly. The account uses a Victoria Police shield as it’s profile picture, contains some generic police related content, and has approximately eighty friends.

The vast majority of these Facebook friends are fake accounts. They all have generic names, no content, one Facebook friend, and the same blank red Facebook profile photo.

Whoever operates the “Mark Daryl” Facebook account appears (at first glance) to have gone to the effort of registering 80+ fake Facebook profiles so that their fake Facebook profile could have some friends.

That said, not all of the accounts linked to this profile are fake. One of “Mark Darryl’s” Facebook friends is a “Mark Bayly”, URL slug mark.bayly.71.

A quick search for “Mark Bayly” reveals that:

Mark Bayly is the manager of online communications for Victoria Police.

Bayly’s hobbies include drumming, his band occasionally plays at Pause Bar in Balaclava, he’s a fan of Pink Floyd, his partner’s name is Margaret, and he has appallingly bad social media security practice for someone who manages the social media presence of a state police force.

It seems that Mark Bayly has received awards for his work in social media, the day to day tasks of which appear to include messaging activist groups to let them know that big brother is always watching:

But back to the fake accounts. Bayly didn’t just register these so that his fake account could have some friends, instead this appears to be the method by which Victoria Police manage their network of “Eyewatch” pages.

Rather than using any commercial solution, it appears that the Victoria Police social media team have registered hundreds of almost identical fake Facebook profiles in order to manage this plethora of different pages. There are presumably fake profiles for every officer who would ever need admin access to one of these Facebook pages.

It’s a clumsy practice but it makes some weird sense. Facebook pages are often subject to mass reporting, and Facebooks’s appalling automated moderation system routinely removes reported content and imposes bans on the admin account that posted the material.

To avoid this problem, most business would just employ a commercial solution (like Hootesuite). Instead, Victoria Police appear to have manually registered an army of paper accounts.

Unfortunately for them, the officers (presumably) using these these fake profiles have appallingly bad security habits. The account names are often similar (or identical to) the names of serving officers, and many of these profiles link back to their personal accounts. Simply by tracking the friends lists of these accounts it is possible to build an extensive map of Victoria Police’s social media presence and the officers who operate it.

The entire operation looks amateurish, but it just gets worse for Victoria Police. Operating fake profiles is a breach of Facebook’s terms of service, and every Facebook user has the ability to report a fake profile.

If sufficient reports are made, the operator of these fake accounts will have to prove to Facebook that the accounts are not fake, that they use real names and so on. Usually Facebook’s system demands a user upload photo ID. If you can’t do this, Facebook will lock your account.

A campaign of mass reporting could see Victoria Police progressively locked out of the accounts they use to manage their sprawling social media presence.

In December, the Andrews government announced that it would establish a “high tech monitoring hub” that would enable Victoria Police to engage in “real-time monitoring of social media”.

I wonder whether this “real time monitoring” system will include a subscription to Hootsuite, and whether it will be available before activists report every single one of these accounts.

Maybe the “manager of online communications for Victoria Police” shouldn’t have taken it upon himself to try and intimidate activists holding a public forum on homelessness.

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The Andrews Labor government has announced a $2 billion bid for the support of Victoria’s Police Association.

In a recent article on the so-called ‘Apex gang’, I noted that:

Victoria goes to the polls in two years, and both major political parties will once again engage in the traditional ‘law and order’ bidding war for the support of the Police Association and the Herald Sun.

The bidding war has now well and truly begun, and it comes complete with thousands of new police, extended police powers, and billions of dollars in spending.

The entire ‘Law and Order’ package is rotten. There is no crime wave, the new powers are not necessary, and the entire thing is rooted in racism.

The premise, pushed by the Herald Sun, the Liberal Party and the Police Association of Victoria, is that Melbourne is in the grips of an unprecedented crime wave.

Liberal opposition leader Matthew Guy has claimed that recent crime statistics are evidence of a “crime tsunami” and that he has “never felt more unsafe in my life”.

For over a year, Victoria’s tabloid newspaper and talkback radio stations have told us to fear a largely mythical ‘Apex gang’.

In reality the ‘Apex gang’ is part of a racist code used by the media to stigmatise young black men from migrant backgrounds. As Anthony Kelly (from the Flemington-Kensington Community Legal Centre) put it in recent comments to the ABC:

“The Apex gang is a convenient code word; essentially it means ethnic or African crime — it’s a code word that can be used by a greater number of commentators, like a dog whistle”

The other common dog whistle used by the media, police and commentators in Victoria is the ever threatening “youth crime”.

When the Police Association’s Rod Iddles bemoans “youth crime and the Apex gang and all that” he’s not talking about drunk middle class white kids punching each other after getting pissed at some city nightclub.

No, he’s latching onto a racist media beat-up that demonizes migrant kids from an African background, who we’re told will jack your car, invade your home and beat your white kiddies for want of something better to do on a Saturday night!

Media, police and political commentators on “youth crime” pin the blame for Victoria’s “crime wave” on kids from migrant backgrounds, in particular the Sudanese community and the Pacific Islander community.

Matthew Guy exemplified this with his call for legislation that would allow the government to immediately deport young offenders.

Unfortunately for Matthew Guy’s racist ambitions, the overwhelming majority of people committing the offenses the media has labeled a “crime wave” were born in Australia, and the crime statistics that purportedly prove the existence of this terrifying crime wave actually show nothing of the sort.

There has been an increase in the rate of reported criminal offenses in Victoria over the past year, largely as a result of the increased reporting of family violence offenses.

“Youth crime” over the same period has actually declined as:

crimes committed by people aged between 15 and 19 fell by 5 per cent, and there was a decrease of 4 per cent in crimes committed by people aged under 25.

Related, the ABS records a steady decline in youth crime across Australia since 2009-10.

But of course, it pays not to place too much trust in official crime statistics. Victorian crime statistics are obtained from the Victoria Police LEAP database. The more people the police arrest, the more “crime” Victoria records.

In reality, the number of people Victoria Police arrest for various offenses has as much to do with levels of police resources (more police means more offenses are “detected”), changing police priorities (expect a “spike in crime” among any population Victoria Police decide to target) as well as changes in which behaviors our society criminalizes.

The increased rate of family violence offers is an illustrative example. No one seriously expects that Victorian men became 10% more violent towards women in the past year. Male violence against women is appalling and commonplace, but the change in “levels” of family violence recorded by the police has as much to do with new processes that have been adopted in order to force police to take family violence seriously.

Media reportage on the so-called crime wave has highlighted increases in the number of ‘carjackings’ and ‘home invasions’ (recorded by police as thefts where the owners were present), and often links these to increases in the number of assaults recorded.

But again, this is hardly a crime wave. The Herald Sun might breathlessly report that there has been an 80% increase in carjackings, but they are still talking about an increase of 76 offenses in a city of four million people.

The media’s tendency to link this to increased reports of assaults is also deceptive. In the past two years societies’ attitude to assault has changed as the media has pushed narratives around “coward punches” and “one hit kills”.

A great many assaults that would once have been passed off as part of the standard risk involved in a night’s drinking are now reported and prosecuted. Many others are connected with increased police measures targeting domestic violence. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is hardly proof of a crime wave.

Melbourne is not in the grips of an “Apex crime wave” (as The Australian termed it in a recent racist beat up), but this hasn’t stopped the Andrews Labor government capitulating to the racist narrative pushed by the Police Association and the Murdoch press.

The government has announced “sweeping new measures” that promise to lock up more Victorian children and young people, longer. Due process will go out the window as new powers allow the police to forcefully obtain DNA samples from suspects without a warrant or court oversight. A two billion dollar spending spree will massively expand the police force, with thousands of new cops, a new helicopter and a bunch of new police stations.

The “Apex crime wave” may have been a myth, but the attacks on due process, the adoption of new authoritarian measures, and the growth of police power are very real. And they must be resisted.

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Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission has handed down a report into the violent treatment of an off-duty policewoman, Yvonne Berry, who had been arrested for drunkenness by police in Ballarat.

The Ballarat case has provoked public interest both because it involves a white female police officer, and because the incident was extensively captured by CCTV cameras.

It is worth noting, as the IBAC report does, that “presence of CCTV cameras did not appear to deter some officers from questionable conduct”1.

This indicates that the police involved were not concerned about being called to account for their actions. This is how Victoria Police officers treat someone when they think no one will care, no one will report on it, and no one outside the police force will investigate.

Content Warning: Descriptions of Yvonne Berry’s treatment at the hands of police follow. Police violence, assaults, abuse.

What happened

On the fourteenth of January last year, Yvonne Berry was arrested by Ballarat police. She was drunk.

Berry should probably have been taken to a hospital, but she declined, so four police officer held her down, handcuffed her, and took her to the Ballarat Police station.

Yvonne Berry was thrown in a cell.

Police cells in Ballarat are standard concrete boxes with, “painted concrete floors and bed shaped blocks, a drinking water fountain and toilet”.2 She wasn’t given a mattress or a blanket “for safety reasons”.3

The drinking fountain was broken.

CCTV footage showed Berry waving a plastic cup at the CCTV camera and pointing at the drinking fountain. The police officer responsible for monitoring people in their cells either did not notice or did not care.

An intoxicated and doubtless parched Yvonne Berry was left with no choice but to drink from the toilet.

At 1am Berry demanded to speak to the officer-in-charge. When her cell door was opened, Berry tried to push her way out. In the scuffle, Berry grabbed an officer’s lanyard and pen.

For reasons that baffle me, the police involved decided that the recovery of a stolen pen and lanyard was the single most important mission confronting Ballarat police in January 2015.

Hyperbole perhaps, but instead of giving their drunk inmate some clean water and a blanket, the officer’s on duty barged back into the cell, wrestled with Berry, sprayed OC spray into her face on two occasions, and still managed to end up sprawling on the ground whilst Berry ran from the cell.

More police responded. They found Berry, dragged her back to the cell on her knees, held her face down and handcuffed her whilst onse officer stood on one of her legs. “A significant amount of OC foam is seen pooling on the cell floor around [Yvonne Berry’s] head”.4

The officer’s involved then proceeded to strip search Yvonne Berry, in her cell, whilst she was covered in OC foam.

As [Berry] was lying face down on her stomach with her hands cuffed behind her and she was affected by OC spray, positional asphyxia was a real risk. It is noted that police are trained that death in such a position can occur very suddenly and that an attempt should be made as quickly as possible to get the prisoner upright onto their knees or standing.5

But the cops wanted their pen back. Even IBAC notes that “the search for the missing items could have waited” and that the police should have “immediately taken [Berry] to the showers”.6

Instead, “Constable A [removed Yvonne Berry’s] underwear, with Constable McCarty hovering over her upper body area”.7

More police enter the cells, including a Senior Constable Nicole Monro:

Senior Constable Munro swiftly delivered a forceful kick with her right foot into the lower rib or stomach area of [Yvonne Berry]. Leading Senior Constable Munro was wearing her normal patrol outfit including heavy boots.8

Nicole Monro walked into a cell where a badly pepper sprayed women was being held down and strip searched, and booted her in the ribs.

Then a Constable Steven Repac came in:

Senior Constable Repac entered the cell. He turned to face the cell door away from [Yvonne Berry’s] head, placed his left foot on the lower part of the back of her right leg and then forcefully stomped on the same area of her other leg.9

Steven Repac walked into a cell were a badly pepper sprayed woman, naked from the waste down, was being held down and strip searched, and began stomping on her leg.

According to the IBAC report, Repac stomped on Yvonne Berry’s leg on multiple occasions, and kicked her again when leaving the cell.

Eventually, Yvonne Berry was dragged to the showers. Handcuffed. She was dragged along the floor, “including over the raised metal ridge which is likely to have caused unnecessary further discomfort”.10

In the showers Berry was left unattended for twenty minutes, despite the fact she was “was handcuffed, suffering from OC spray and probably still affected by alcohol”.11

The heat was turned up, “which is contrary to police training as warmth exacerbates the painful burning sensation caused by OC spray”.12

Berry, still in her shirt and underwear, was then “wrapped in a towel” and taken to Ballarat Hospital. “A brief medical observation was conducted while she remained in the vehicle”.

She was then returned to the cells, and “left there with her wet upper clothing still on and her underpants. CCTV footage shows person A attempting to sleep on the cell floor in that condition”.13

Why did this happen?

IBAC has recommended assault charges be laid against two police officers for their role in the beating and torture of Yvonne Berry.

However, the IBAC report is at pains to excuse all but the most grievous actions by the police involved.

Dragging Berry across the ground was apparently “reasonable” despite the “discomfort involved”.

The copious use of pepper spray, sprayed so thick that it formed a visible pool on the ground when Berry was held down, is excused away by an IBAC commissioner who clearly has no appreciation for the horrendous pain and injury this chemical weapon causes.

The decision of the police involved to start a brawl over a pen and lanyard (rather than simply collect them when Berry sobered up) is not even questioned by IBAC’s investigation. The use of hot water on OC burns to torture Berry is dismissed as mere oversight.

IBAC has recommended common assault charges for the kickings, the bruising and the stomping. Common assault, not assault occasioning actual bodily harm.

The IBAC report is weak, Victoria Police are worse. Earlier this year “Victoria Police internal investigators [found] no evidence of criminal conduct” and the two police officers involved “had their suspensions lifted”.14

Now that the IBAC report has been released, the Police Minister, and the acting police commissioner, have been at pains to defend the “integrity” of the police at Ballarat, and have publicly rejected claims that violence by the police might be in any way systemic.

The Police Association’s response to the IBAC investigation was to fund multiple court challenges to either prevent police from having to testify, prevent their identities from being revealed, or prevent the hearings from being conducted publicly.

In January last year police beat and tortured Yvonne Berry. They did it despite the presence of CCTV. They did it knowing that any internal police investigation would clear them. They did it knowing the Police Association would have their back. They did it knowing the public, media and politicians routinely excuse violence by the police against vulnerable people. Had Yvonne Berry not later been revealed to be a serving police officer, I doubt this issue would have provoked an IBAC investigation and possible charges.

Police abused Yvonne Berry because they have the power, they have the badge, they have the guns, they have the public support, and they have the confidence that impunity provides.

All of the officers involved in the mistreatment of Yvonne Berry remain serving members of Victoria Police. Be careful.

Further Reading

The Flemington-Kensington Community Legal Centre maintains an ongoing Police Accountability Project. As they pointed out yesterday:

IBAC’s special report into Operation Ross, released on 10 Novermber, misses a vital opportunity to look beyond Ballarat to the Victorian police complaints system itself.

Existing police complaints mechanisms in Victoria have consistently failed to maintain accountability, uphold human rights, or change police behaviour, and public faith in complaints processes is understandably low.

Victoria urgently needs to move to a system of independent police complaints investigation.

I would go even further, and suggest that Victoria Police need to be disarmed as a matter of urgency, and subjected to significant community (rather than political) oversight, direction and accountability.

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