Questions are being as a result of Victorian Police refusing to release details that would explain why a female police officer has been cleared of any wrongdoing after punching a 15-year old girl in the head at a pro-marijuana rally.
At the 420 Rally in Flagstaff last year, a large crowd gathered around five officers who were holding a screaming, handcuffed girl to the ground. After eventually getting the girl to her feet, they walked her out of the park. Police allege that as they were doing so, the teenager spat towards an officer, before the officer punched the girl to the head. The girl was later charged with supplying drugs, possessing drugs and assaulting a police officer in execution of their duty.
A subsequent investigation by the Victoria Police internal review body, the Professional Standards Command (PSC), found the officer’s use of force was “not disproportionate in response to the protester’s actions” despite the fact that there’s clear video footage of the incident which shows a number of police man-handling the girl, while she is on the ground and is shouting at them to “get off” and when she is finally standing.
It is clear from the footage that is many of the protesters were distressed and angered by the heavy-handed conduct of the police officers. Despite this, Police Minister Lisa Neville issued a statement saying “Effective policing requires the careful exercise of judgement and the application of appropriate discretion, ensuring the police adapt their response to suit the circumstances. To do this effectively, they may need to use force,”
At the time, the large police presence at the 420 gathering was heavily criticised as completely unnecessary. The annual 420 rally is held worldwide on 20 April by cannabis enthusiasts to campaign for the liberalisation of drug laws. The rally takes its name from the time 4.20pm, when all attendees smoke cannabis in unison. These have traditionally been peaceful protests.
So when footage of the incident first emerged, many were alarmed by the way the teen had been treated by police. But despite calls from members of parliament to “fully’ investigate” the incident, Victorian Police made clear they would only launch an inquiry if there was an “official complaint”.
Officer did not use ‘unreasonable force’
Now, in the wake of the news that the female officer who punched the 15-year old has now been cleared, without further details being released, advocates for police accountability have renewed calls for police forces to stop being allowed to police their own.
They believe the current system does not offer an independent assessment of events, but rather perpetuates a culture where police can effectively protect their own – and by doing so undermines public confidence and trust in the police force
Even though in Victoria the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) exists to monitor police behaviour (the equivalent to IBAC in NSW is the Law Enforcement Corruption Commission – or LECC), these bodies tend to be so underfunded they can only investigate a small number of complaints, and often end up referring cases back to police for internal investigation.
In its Annual Report 2018-19, the LECC detailed that it assessed 2,547 complaints about the NSW Police Force, but because of budget restraints was only able to fully investigate about 2 percent of them.
Furthermore, even when these oversight bodies do find police have broken the law, they only have powers to recommend that charges are laid or officers be disciplined, they cannot enforce those recommendations let alone commence proceedings themselves.
‘She was a child, the police were the adults’
This is not new criticism of the police complaints system, but it does beg the question of exactly when ‘reasonable force’ becomes ‘police brutality’. In this case, the person being arrested was a child, and had already been restrained. She was also completely outnumbered by police officers.
While no one deserves to be spat on in the course of doing their job, it is highly concerning that also in this case, the police officer’s initial, instinctive reaction was to retaliate by punching the girl to the head.
The dangers of ‘blows to the head’ are well documented. An, as one police accountability expert has said, in this case, police were literally the adults in the room. “They should behave better than this.”