By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Shocking CCTV footage from a police station in Victoria was the eventual undoing of senior constable Steven Repac.
The officer has been found guilty over his treatment of Yvonne Berry while she was in custody overnight for public drunkenness. During her 16 hours at the Ballarat police station, Ms Berry was capsicum sprayed, forcibly searched, left partially naked in the presence of male officers, kicked, stomped-on and stood-on while handcuffed on the floor.
After showering to remove the capsicum spray, Ms Berry was left in a wet shirt and underwear for five hours.
Not given anything to drink, she eventually becoming so thirsty that she drank from the toilet.
An internal police review after the incident determined that the actions of the officers involved did not amount to an assault.
However, the case was referred to the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) which found the actions indeed warranted assault charges, recommending that officer Rapic face five separate charges of common assault and leading senior constable Nicole Munro face one.
Both officers were eventually charged in accordance with those recommendations, and the case proceeded to a jury trial, resulting in a unanimous verdict of guilty for one count of assault against Rapic and a hung jury for the remainder of the charges against him.
The jury was also unable to reach a verdict in respect of the charge against officer Munro.
During the two-week trial, more than 20 witnesses gave evidence, including officers who worked on the night Ms Berry was taken into custody, as well as an emergency room doctor, a general practitioner and a paramedic.
Police fought to keep footage hidden
Police fought tooth and nail, at the taxpayer’s expense, to keep the 82 seconds of footage from public view.
In fact, police appealed the decision to release the footage all the way up to the High Court of Australia, and lost.
The video, taken in the early hours of 15 January 2015, shows Ms Berry with her underpants down and bare legs, lying handcuffed with her face to the concrete cell floor.
Another pair of officers were searching and attending to the arrested woman when Leading Senior Constable Munro and officer Repac enter the cell.
Ms Munro appears to kick Ms Berry in the lower torso, with Repac follows close behind, standing on the woman’s bare ankles before kicking her to the shin.
The court heard Ms Berry was subdued at the time and was not physically resisting. During the trial, officer Munro claimed to have only “nudged” Ms Berry to “get her attention”.
She claimed to have done this to avoid risk of contamination from the pepper spray used on the arrested woman, and to prevent to contraction of any diseases”.
Officer Repac chose not to testify and the jury was asked to consider his actions carefully, particularly whether Ms Berry posed a threat to the officers.
The officer made a formal statement in the days after the assault to the effect that he, “pinned Yvonne Berry’s legs down to prevent her from kicking out at members” as she was being handcuffed. However, the CCTV footage shows he had not arrived in the cell when the handcuffs were being administered.
Unable to reach a verdict
The jury was discharged after it was unable to reach a verdict in relation to the four remaining assault charges against officer Repac, as well as the one relating to officer Munro.
There was expected to be a retrial of those charges, but the DPP recently indicated the proceedings are to be withdrawn.
The safety and wellbeing of people being held in police custody is an ongoing issue across the country, as is the way complaints about police misconduct are handled.
In many cases, police are left to investigate their own colleagues without independent oversight, resulting in a lack of accountability.
A parliamentary committee recently asked the Victorian Government to consider reforming the way police misconduct complaints are handled in the state, criticising the current system whereby 98 per cent of complaints against officers are dealt with by police.