By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Ballarat police have been under intense scrutiny in recent times, after a number of videos emerged of officers engaging in acts of brutality against members of the public.
One of those videos shows officers dousing a handcuffed woman with pepper spray at the police station, forcibly dragging her along the floor, standing on her legs and kicking her as she lays defenceless with male officers huddling around watching her underwear being removed, leaving the woman completely naked from the waist down.
She had been arrested earlier that night for being intoxicated in public.
Rather than promote transparency, the Police Association fought to keep the footage hidden from the public, but the Supreme Court ordered that it be made available for scrutiny. In fact, the Association went all the way up to the High Court of Australia at great public expense in an attempt to keep the resulting brutality hearings private – but it failed once again.
Other videos showed officers manhandling women at the station without justification.
Four police officers were ultimately suspended as a result of investigations by the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC), and one was reassigned to alternative duties.
Now, charges have been laid against Ballarat police officer David Berry for allegedly assaulting his neighbour.
Samantha Mitchell reported being punched in the face after knocking on the officer’s door to seek help after an argument with her partner.
“I heard a loud male voice tell me to ‘f*** off’, which really startled me,” Ms Mitchell said.
In a statement to police, the officer admitted chasing Ms Mitchell as she ran from his property, claiming he then punched the woman in self-defence.
“I immediately threw a single punch with my right hand, fearing she was about to hit me and not knowing if she was holding anything,” the officer said in his statement.
Ms Mitchell — herself a former police officer, from Queensland — reported the assault the following day to Ballarat police station.
But before she could make a statement, a constable approached her and served her with an intervention order listing Sergeant Berry as the person needing protection.
Officer Berry has been charged with unlawful assault and is due to appear in Ballarat Magistrate’s Court on 5 July.
A state parliamentary committee is currently examining the system for oversight of police corruption and misconduct in Victoria, including the role of the IBAC.
This comes after the 2016 IBAC investigation which prompted calls for the creation of a new independent body to investigate misconduct allegations.
IBAC recently slammed Victorian Police for the way it conducts reviews and serious incidents, which essentially amount to police investigating themselves.
It found that less than 4 per cent of police brutality reports to regional Victorian police stations were upheld. IBAC has openly criticised the way police handle internal investigations of serious incidents — highlighting a systemic failure to consider relevant evidence and a tendency to place too much weight on police versions of events and too little on the evidence given by independent witnesses.
A report released late last year by the Police Registration and Service Board outlined several instances of serious misconduct including assaults, harassment, stalking and predatory sexual conduct by Victorian police.
And earlier this year, Victoria Police made national media headlines again when video footage emerged on ABC’s 7.30 report showing six officers dragging a disability pensioner from his home to his front yard, then beating him with a baton, stomping on his head, and dousing him with capsicum spray before turning a garden hose on him.
That matter has been referred to IBAC. However, police accountability mechanisms such as IBAC and the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) in NSW are often over-burdened and working with minimal resources. What’s more, they have no real power to discipline officers who do the wrong thing. They can only make recommendations.
In many instances, complaints are then handed back to police to deal with. And to make things worse, ‘good cops’ who reveal incidents of brutality are often ostracised and even prosecuted for doing the right thing.
Film and post the videos online
Fed up with the status quo, Victorian Legal Aid is openly encouraging victims of police brutality to post incriminating evidence online, rather than just make formal complaints to the police force and other bodies, which often fall on deaf ears.
Legal Aid is hoping that social media will focus the spotlight on the dire need for more accountability for police officers across all states and territories of Australia.