EXCLUSIVE: As the Covid-19 lockdown continues across large parts of a beleaguered Australia, stress, anxiety and its associated link with criminality – especially that of family violence – is creating increasing pressure on police forces in the affected states. Gary Johnston investigates.
Family violence, according to Victorian government figures, directly affects one in five women over the course of their lifetime.
The term “family violence” or “FV” encompasses violence that might occur between family members, such as violence between siblings or across generations, in addition to violence between partners.
In recent times, the police response to FV in individual states has undergone considerable changes – for example, the Victoria Police Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence outlines a range of actions Victoria Police must take during the course of their investigations in such situations.
It goes without saying that the protection and safety of victims must always take priority, but it is also important that police act professionally and ethically in carrying out their duties; the code provides critical detail on how alleged FV perpetrators should be treated, arrested, interviewed and charged, in accordance with the Victorian Crimes Act of 1958.
Michael (not his real name) was arrested in the Victorian country town of Ballarat for a Family Violence offence and whilst his purported behaviour cannot in any way be justified, his experiences whilst in custody do raise questions about the nature of professionalism in a police station with a long and troubling history regarding its treatment of alleged offenders.
In 2015, Yvonne Berry, at the time a serving police officer on sick leave, was arrested by for public drunkenness, with later released CCTV footage showing how she was kicked and stomped while handcuffed in the Ballarat watch house.
Ms Berry later complained and although an internal investigation initially cleared police of any wrongdoing, a subsequent IBAC (Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission) investigation recommended that one of the officers involved be charged with five separate offences of common assault.
Senior Constable Steven Repac was later sentenced to a 12-month good behaviour bond without conviction, Victorian County Court Judge Paul Lacava noting that whilst Rapic’s action was ‘gratuitous and uncalled for’, he was ‘frustrated and angry’ due to the behaviour of the victim, Ms Berry.
IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich QC later said the investigation “exposed serious deficiencies in the way this particular incident was handled, as well as concerns about the duty of care afforded to other vulnerable people at the Ballarat police station”.
Ms Berry ultimately took civil action against Victoria Police resulting in her receiving a confidential payment believed to be in excess of $500,000.
Despite the IBAC enquiry highlighting the existence of duty of care concerns at Ballarat, the station continues to rank in the top percentage of most complained about locations in Victoria.
Two weeks ago, a 50 year old Indigenous woman died in custody at the police station prior to her appearance in court, the fourth such death in 2021, 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody submitted its final report in April 1991.
The Royal Commission made 330 recommendations, very few of which have been implemented; the plain and sobering fact is Indigenous people continue to die in custody.
In addition, it also seems that Indigenous alleged offenders coming to the attention of Ballarat police are subjected to questionable and problematic treatment which can be at best described as unprofessional, at worst discriminatory.
I spoke with Michael who admits his behaviour was unacceptable and deserving of criminal conviction, as he relayed his experiences as an alleged Indigenous offender in Ballarat custody.
‘I know I was in the wrong’, Michael told me ‘and I do want to be better’.
Intending to plead guilty at his forthcoming court appearance, Michael has already signed up for a voluntary Men’s Behaviour group incorporating anger management and is keen to be included on Change About, a program that targets criminogenic needs and risk factors related to violent offending, including emotional regulation, thoughts and beliefs, offending behaviour, victim empathy and goal setting.
Michael’s motivation and remorse seems genuine, but his experience whilst in custody raises serious questions about police conduct in the Ballarat watchhouse.
“When I was arrested, I was basically thrown into a cell and not allowed to make any phone calls or contact a lawyer,” Michael told True Crime News Weekly.
In Victoria, police are required to tell the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) that they are holding an Indigenous person in custody. Michael claims this did not happen.
“I was verbally abused, the police officer who arrested called me names.
“He told me I was a ‘piece of sh*t’, he jostled me, leaving me with bruises on my back and shoulders. I was abandoned without support or representation, given no medical treatment or even a blanket,” Michael said.
“I know I was in the wrong but treating me like a flog is not how police officers should behave, instead of teaching me violence and intimidation is not the answer, it’s made me think that it’s okay as long as you’re wearing a uniform.”
It should be noted that, by law, police can use ‘reasonable’ force to arrest a person. Reasonable force is defined as enough physical force to effect arrest, and no more.
The City of Ballarat, which stands on the Traditional Lands of the Wadawurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung Peoples has a significant Indigenous population and, in common with other parts of Victoria, are massively overrepresented in the criminal justice system. In 2019-20, Aboriginal people were almost six times more likely to be processed by police as alleged offenders than their non-Aboriginal peers.
Of course Michael’s behaviour was unacceptable, as he himself acknowledges. Family Violence is an insidious problem for Australia across social and cultural boundaries and no one expects alleged offenders to be cosseted, but a display of unnecessary force only indicates the unacceptability of any types of violence and coercion, no matter who displays it. Police have a duty of care responsibility to treat everyone with a measure of respect regardless of the circumstances, their job is to investigate, rather than adjudicate crime, with professionalism and equitability.
Unfortunately, it seems that Indigenous offenders are much more likely to treated prejudicially by law enforcement, and that this form of racial profiling and discriminatory policing practices surely exacerbates rather than helps to properly address an issue which is now becoming especially prevalent in the current pandemic affected climate.
It possibly happens in many areas of Australia.
It seems incontrovertible that in happens in Ballarat.
I advised Michael to seek legal advice regarding his experience in custody, however, his response was as terse as it was telling.
“Yeah. What’s the f*cking point?”
And after I told him about the apparent half million dollar pay out to Yvonne Berry, the ex-police officer who sued Victoria Police, his response was equally revealing.
“Well,” he said, “she wasn’t black, was she?”
Victoria Police say they are committed to providing quality police service and ensuring personnel demonstrate the highest levels of professional standards, ethics and integrity. Anyone who is unsatisfied with a service provided by Victoria Police is entitled to have their complaint taken seriously and be treated with courtesy and respect.
You can make a complaint to the Police Conduct Unit, personally or through an advocate.
Police Conduct Unit
GPO Box 913
Melbourne Vic 3001
Phone: 1300 363 101
Feature Image: Victoria Police officers at a protest (Image: Wiki Commons)