By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
28-year old Carl Hoppner is the first to admit his conduct on Australia Day last year was unacceptable, and he certainly paid for it.
The Indigenous man was sentenced in Toronto Local Court on Friday to 10 month imprisonment after pleading guilty to headbutting and elbowing officers during his arrest, and spitting blood-filled saliva on one of them.
But during the sentencing proceedings, Presiding Magistrate Alan Railton made clear that this did not justify the actions of police officers when the man was forcefully pulled out of the back of the van at the police station carpark and dragged into the custody area.
CCTV footage depicts officers pulling Mr Hoppner out of the police van and landing on the ground on his back. While he is on the ground covering his face with both hands, one of the officers sees fit to kick him in the head, then deliver a punch aimed at his head – which ends up hitting his body. The officer then kicks him in the back.
It is important to bear in mind that the man is in a foetal position on his back and is not retaliating.
Several officers then drag him along the ground to the custody area, where the footage shows police delivering a number of additional punches while Hoppner is restrained face down.
He is then dragged into a cell.
It might also be noted that as an Indigenous person, Mr Hoppner is considered by the law to be vulnerable and special rules are meant to apply when he is in the custody of police.
In the courtroom
During the sentencing proceedings, Mr Hoppner’s Aboriginal Legal Service lawyer asked the court to consider his client’s vulnerable person status, together with the fact he received “five blows to the head” in circumstances where there was an “immense power imbalance” between their client and the police.
Magistrate Railton was in agreeance, remarking in open court that:
“Mr Hoppner was dealt [with] by police in an extremely forceful manner”.
“The footage clearly shows the police using significant force in removing him from the truck and removing him from the cells. It also shows actions totally consistent with throwing punches.”
However, the court was called upon to sentence the defendant for his initial actions, which his Honour found warranted nothing less than a sentence of full-time imprisonment.
Feared for his life
Mr Hoppner told the media that he was “terrified” and 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 explained.
“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”.
“When they pulled me up I seen [sic] this pool of blood thinking that is mine and then they just said, ‘Happy Invasion Day you black cunt’”.
Section 231 of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 is headed ‘Use of force in making an arrest’.
The section makes clear that “A police officer or other person who exercises a power to arrest another person may use such force as is reasonably necessary to make the arrest or to prevent the escape of the person after arrest.”
Any force beyond this constitutes an assault under the criminal law.
A New South Wales Police Force spokeswoman told the media that an internal investigation into the incident has begun.
But with less than 4% of complaints resulting in any form of disciplinary action, there is no certainty that any of the officers involved will be reprimanded or otherwise disciplined, let alone face assault charges.
Mr Hoppner’s lawyer said he will be referring the matter to the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), which is meant to be an independent body that investigates complaints against police.
However, the LECC is by its own admission severely under-resourced and has no power to discipline officers.
Last year, the LECC’s Chief Commissioner Michael Adams reported that a “continued increasing workload” combined with “reduced funding” means the watchdog is struggling to “exercise its functions to the standards I … would insist on for such an important agency”.
For this reason, the LECC has had to refer dozens of complaints back to police for internal investigation.