Do Protective Services Officers Have Too Much Power?

If you’ve been on social media recently, you might have come across a video depicting Protective Services Officers (PSOs) allegedly assaulting a man at a Victorian train station.

According to Moustafa Sayegh, he was approached by the PSOs whilst waiting at Jacana Station in Glenroy last year. The officers enquired where he was going and asked to search his bag.

Aware of the fact that a lawful search requires PSOs to have a “reasonable suspicion”, Moustafa asked the officers why they wanted to search him; but the PSOs refused to give him any reason for the search.

What happened next took Moustafa by complete surprise.

As he tried to record the incident on his phone – which he is legally entitled to do – the officers became aggressive and lunged at him. Moustafa says that they became ‘out of control,’ punching him in the ribs and elbowing his head.

Moustafa alleges that during the incident, one of the officers dislocated his thumb, causing him to kick back in self-defence, which is a valid legal defence to assault. Moustafa was later charged with assaulting a PSO.

Moustafa’s experience raises concerns about both the misuse of powers to search and the heavy-handed tactics of the PSOs.

What are Protective Services Officers?

PSOs patrol Melbourne trains and their surrounds from 3pm until the early hours of the morning, targeting anti-social behaviour, property damage, alcohol and transport-related offences, such as fare evasion.

They were introduced in 2012 by the state government as part of its ‘tough on crime’ campaign. The training of recruits commenced in 2011, and aimed to have 940 PSOs in the force by the end of 2014.

The total cost of rolling out the PSO program has been estimated at $212 million, however with reports of numerous recruits leaving the program in the middle of their paid training, there is a significant likelihood that taxpayers have had to foot an even higher bill.

The situation has led one prominent academic to conclude that PSOs ‘provide little value at extreme expense.’

PSOs are armed with many of the same weapons as ‘regular’ police, including capsicum spray, batons and pistols. They are also entrusted with a wide range of powers, including the power to ask for personal information, to arrest, and to issue fines for various offences.

However, they can only ask for identification if they suspect a person of committing an offence, or being about to commit an offence – and they cannot ask you for an adult’s date of birth.

Despite their power and weaponry, ordinary people can become PSOs after receiving just 12 weeks of paid training at the Victorian Police Academy, followed by a 3-month mentoring program. This amounts to about a third of the training that Victorian Police officers normally receive.

The limited training is a cause for concern, with numerous instances of excessive force, racial profiling and provocative and aggressive behaviour being reported since PSOs were introduced.

In one case, a PSO who was scheduled to begin his first shift accidently pulled the trigger on his gun whilst attempting to remove his name tag.

PSOs Subject to Numerous Complaints

In another recent incident, PSOs made headlines after they were found to have used excessive force when dealing with two 17-year-old boys at a busy Melbourne railway station.

Drama unfolded after one of the boys attempted to jump a turnstile without a valid ticket. He was stopped by PSOs and gave them his name, date of birth and address, but then decided to make a run for it.

CCTV footage shows the boy attempting to board a train, before he is pulled off by PSOs, deliberately tripped and forced to the ground.

His friend witnessed the incident and approached the officers, yelling at them to stop what they were doing. Yet despite neither boy posing any threat, they were capsicum sprayed just metres away from a moving train. At one point, the boys were both facing the wall and attempting to cover their faces – yet the officers continued to spray them.

The Victorian Police Procedural Manual states that ‘capsicum spray must only be deployed where the officer believes there is a reasonable threat of violence or serious physical confrontation. It should not be used in situations of passive resistance.’

Yet it seems that the boys were doing just that – passively resisting. In the children’s court, the Magistrate found that ‘there is nothing in [the boy’s] behaviour or body language which justifies him being sprayed.’

The officers’ allegations that the boys were ‘lashing out’ were also rejected after CCTV footage was shown in court– and indeed one of the PDOs later agreed that his initial allegations were false.

These types of incidents are not isolated. A prominent Melbourne criminal barrister has commented that capsicum spray is increasingly being used as a means of attacking young people in order to ‘gain their compliance.’

PSOs have also been criticised for racial profiling after a 41-year-old IT worker Patrick Prosper was approached by officers last year. According to Mr Prosper, he was asked where he was from, to which he replied ‘Beaumaris’ – the Melbourne suburb where he resides.

However, the PSO then asked him what his ‘background’ was, and Mr Prosper told him that his parents were Mauritians and that he was going home from work. The PSO allegedly told him, ‘it doesn’t look like you’re coming home from work.’

He described the experience as being ‘embarrassing,’ as up to 11 other commuters watched as he was belittled.

Project Finds PSOs Use Aggression When Confronting Members of the Public

A project conducted by The Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria this year found that in many instances, commuters were unnecessarily harassed by PSOs.

The report found that commuters were frequently asked for their personal details when simply waiting for a train or passing through a train station. Commuters who did not comply were often subjected to provocative conduct, which sometimes escalated into physical violence.

Community legal centres have also raised concerns about the extent of force used by PSOs, warning that there is a risk of someone being seriously hurt or even killed.

A senior advisor to the organisation that published the report said that these issues are compounded by the fact that police lack an independent complaints system – rather, civilians normally have to lodge complaints with police service directly.

This effectively amounts to ‘police investigating police’ and decreases the accountability of PSOs when it comes to their illegal actions.

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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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