By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Until now, Yvonne Berry has been a faceless victim of shocking police brutality, whose body we’ve seen pushed to the ground, dragged, pepper sprayed, kicked, stomped on and stripped naked in a series of degrading acts at Ballarat Police Station.
Ms Berry – known during recent investigations as ‘Person A’ – was at the very centre of Operation Ross, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) inquiry into multiple complaints of misconduct and excessive force at the station.
Despite police fighting to keep the footage and corruption hearings secret, IBAC decided to release the recordings and allow limited public access to the hearings. Police appealed, but both the Supreme Court of Victoria and the highest court in the land – the High Court of Australia – upheld IBAC’s decision to do so.
Recently, Ms Berry bravely decided to go public with her story on the ABC’s 7.30 programme.
The story so far…
Yvonne Berry was a police officer herself, taking time off from the Victorian Police Force in 2014. After a 25 years of service, including time in the internal affairs division, she was burnt-out and experiencing mental health issues.
On 15 January 2015, while on extended leave, Ms Berry was arrested for being drunk and disorderly in public. She was approached by police who claimed she tried to flee. She ended up in the back of a paddy wagon and then in a cell at Ballarat Police Station.
Had police complied with their own policies, Ms Berry would have spent four hours in a cell to sober up and then released, possibly with an infringement notice.
But the woman was held in police custody for 16 hours. CCTV recorded her in a cell attempting to use a broken drinking fountain, before gesturing to the camera for water. Police refused to give her water.
Desperately thirsty, she eventually drank from the cell’s toilet. CCTV recorded the ensuing events, whereby Ms Berry was repeatedly assaulted and subjected to degrading treatment.
Officers make excuses
Faced with the damning CCTV footage, one officer told IBAC the kick was to “calm her down”. However, the footage shows Ms Berry handcuffed on the floor and not moving at the time.
Another officer said he stomped on her ankle to “stop her from kicking other officers”. But again, the footage shows that the handcuffed woman was not attempting to kick or strike anyone.
The male officer who pulled Ms Berry’s underwear off while she was face down and handcuffed said he was looking for an officer’s missing lanyard that he thought she may have taken.
Rather than admitting misconduct and accepting responsibility in the face of the footage, the officers sought to make excuses – and poor ones at that.
Cleared to work again
Two of the officers that assaulted Ms Berry were originally suspended, but have since been cleared to return to work, although the incident has led to a very rare admission of fault by senior police.
Professional Standards Command superintendent Tony De Ridder says he is “personally mortified” about Ms Berry’s treatment in Ballarat’s police cells, blaming it on “a total lack of leadership”.
“I thought on face value there were clear breaches of human rights and assaults had occurred, and I also thought the behaviour of our members was inconsistent with our training, the way we ask our people to behave. I was very shocked,” Mr Ridder said.
But these words have not translated into actions – indeed one might ask, if there “were clear breaches of human rights and assaults”, why have the officers been cleared to work again?
Is this Australia or Guantanamo Bay?
As if her ordeal was not bad enough, Ms Berry was charged with numerous offences including resisting arrest and interfering with the good order of a gaol. She described the charges as “a hamburger with the lot”, saying the episode left her feeling like she was “in Guantanamo Bay” rather than Australia.
After the ICAC investigation, all charges against Ms Berry were quietly dropped. And as if the footage is not enough for charges to be brought against the offending officers, police say they will now seek fresh advice about whether to prosecute.
Ms Berry says she has had enough and plans to bring civil proceedings against the police force, and perhaps rightly so.