Judge Roy Ellis of the New South Wales District Court has made clear there was no excuse for police officers to violently drag 28-year old Indigenous man Carl Hoppner from a police vehicle at Toronto Police Station on Australia Day last year before repeatedly punching and kicking him while he lay handcuffed and huddled on the ground.
Australia Day arrest
CCTV footage shows up to seven officers violently setting upon the arrested man, who is doing nothing to instigate or participate in the violence.
According to Mr Hoppner, police used racist slurs during the incident including, ‘Happy invasion day you black cunt’ – a claim which was not disputed during court proceedings.
Mr Hoppner said that he feared for his life during the incident. “I was on the grog, I was out of hand, I did wrong, but wasn’t expecting to be bashed”, he stated.
“They kick me in the head, punch me, another punch another kick, then they roll me over, drag me into the charge room. I felt like an animal to them, I didn’t feel human”.
Local Court proceedings
Mr Hoppner was originally arrested for intimidating his wife, after which police added charges of assaulting police.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in Toronto Local Court to 10 months in prison. During the sentencing proceedings, Magistrate Alan Railton accepted that excessive force amounting to assault was used against Mr Hoppner – that he was “dealt with by police in an extremely forceful manner.”
District Court appeal
Mr Hoppner lodged an appeal against the severity of the sentence, which came before Judge Ellis of Newcastle District Court.
His Honour accepted that Mr Hoppner suffered ‘extra curial punishment’ at the hands of police, whose actions were unjustified.
“Police have a difficult job, but it does not mean they should be conducting themselves in the way in which they did,” the judge remarked. “There are alternatives to using violence and it applies to the police, just as much as anybody else.”
His Honour went on to suggest that additional training should be given to police, so they do not resort to assaulting members of the community.
Directing his remarks to Mr Hoppner, he stated, “Certainly, the way they dealt with you from what I have seen, just worsened the whole situation”.
His Honour upheld the appeal and sentenced Mr Hoppner to a 12 month intensive correction order, which means he will not have to spend time in prison.
Police told the media the case is being investigated internally, and that a referral has also been made to the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC).
It is open to any victim of police brutality to make a complaint directly to NSW Police Force or the LECC.
However, the vast majority of complaints are dealt with internally, and only around 4% result in any form of disciplinary action.
Calls for greater police accountability
A recent Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) report, entitled ‘Pathways to Justice – Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torrest Strait Islander Peoples– has recommended an overhaul of the police complaints process.
The ALCR says changes should be implemented to ensure “greater practical independence, accountability and transparency of investigations”, expressing particular concerns about the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are being treated by police.
In Canada, Ireland and New Zealand, there are strong bodies with statutory independence from police who investigate deaths and serious harm at the hands of police. These bodies regularly make recommendations to the respective Directors of Public Prosecutions for criminal charges to be brought against offending officers.
But with Australian governments regularly backing police regardless of systemic abuse and misconduct, it may be some time before we see any meaningful change.