#NotWithYou: Why more weapons for Victoria Police is a Very Bad Idea

In a carefully orchestrated public relations launch on Thursday 22 March, Victoria Police revealed it’s armoury of new repressive weaponry.

The Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Graham Ashton has expressed concern about how these weapons will be perceived by the public.  “We need the community to be with us on this’’ he said.  Well, we are not and here’s why.

The Operations Response Unit (ORU) received an initial $7.6 million with an ongoing ($35 million) over five years to “improve the management of large scale or high-risk public order incidents.”  The Victorian government, as part of its inappropriately named ‘Public Safety Package’ announced this funding back in 2016 and now we see what VicPol ended up buying with it.
These new weapons will be used by the Operational Response Unit (ORU) and distributed from a new hi-tech vehicle that will record evidence and can livestream to an offsite command centre. Most of these weapons have already been in use in some form by specialist units such  the Critical Incident Response Team and Special Operations Group and have come out at recent prison protests or hostage scenarios.   However this represents a significant rollout to more ‘regular’ public order police.
The only weapon that is totally new for VicPol is the VKS Pepperball firearm (pictured below). A 175 shot semi-automatic rifle that fires capsicum rounds, blunt force pellets the size of marbles or dye markers to brand people for arrest later.  These pellets can blind, maim and leave permanent injuries depending where they hit the body. (Check out the demo for it here.)   There’s footage of these guns being fired at protesters in Portland Oregan (USA) last year here.
 
The 40-millimetre rubber bullet launcher so proudly displayed by  Superintendent Tim Tully has resulted in significant injuries and fatalities around the world. Just last year a 25 year old protester was killed by a rubber bullet in Paraguay.
Stinger grenades  – (pictured below) is a pain compliance, distraction and disorientation device for ‘crowd management’, it may be hand thrown or launched in the general direction of the crowd and may be deployed for ground bursts or aerial bursts at the discretion of the operator  – It explodes releasing nine 32-calibre rubber pellets to waist height with a range of five metres.
The Flash/noise distraction grenades designed to shock and disperse crowds are routinely being used in Israel/Palestine and other conflict zones and have maimed children, can burst ear drums and  generate dangerous fear and panic in crowds.
In terms of capsicum canisters, that detonate to release a cloud of capsicum, deaths can occur if people and gas gets trapped in a confined area such as in prison cells.

Injuries from Less Lethal Weapons:  – Theodore C. Chan, MD, FACEP, Professor of Clinical Medicine, University of California San Diego Medical Center.

Instead of investing in communities these new expensive weapons increase the likelihood of violence against communities that are not valued in Victoria, t

A ‘Stinger Grenade’ mentioned above

he incarcerated and the marginalised. They will be used against teenagers at parties, against frustrated prisoners, and against citizens standing up against injustices that the government ignores.

Having observed and documented crowd control policing over the past seven years, Melbourne Activist Legal Support can safely say Victoria Police already deploy riot equipment unnecessarily, inappropriately, dangerously and in ways that infringe upon human rights. We have witnessed OC Spray being used indiscriminately, and against police’s own regulations –  on multiple occasions.
Victoria Police have stated that the main purpose for deploying these weapons is to “enhance the safety of community members and our members”. No  – these are weapons will be used against Victorian citizens.  Independent studies show that riot gear has a destabilising effect at public order events, tending to aggravate and escalate the situation and making it far more dangerous for both community and police.  Riot policing generates fear, anger, distrust and disorder.
At an event referred to during the media launch, the Milo Yiannopoulos protests in Flemington in December 2017, MALS Legal Observers witnessed police ignore hours of vitriolic racial and religious abuse of local residents by white nationalist groups, then we saw intensely provocative riot formations deployed against the very people who had experienced the abuse. Many local residents felt they they were under attack by police.
“One man who has lived at the housing estate for 15 years said he had been standing with his arms linked with other residents in a peaceful stand against the right-wing protesters who were taunting them, when they were doused with pepper-spray by police wielding batons.” –The Age 13 December 2017

Photo: Jason South

Far from justifying the purchase of these weapons, the policing in Flemington that night proved that riot policing makes things worst, and that policing in Victoria is already more intensively focused upon marginalized and ‘less-valued’ communities.
Whenever weapons like this are brought out at protests, kids parties (yes, teenage parties the spill out into the street) or during prison protests, they are routinely misused.
The almost daily misuse of OC spray by Victoria Police is a case in point.  These new weapons make the abuse of civil, political and human rights in Victoria more likely and more severe.  Under human rights law, any restrictions on protest, and any use of force, must be for a legitimate purpose and be proportionate to that aim.  We know from experience that these new weapons will be used without a justifiable purpose, against people posing no threat to police, and in disproportionate ways.

Police spraying toward a Legal Observer and toward no-one who was threatening him – in contravention of Vicpol’s regulations of use. – Melbourne, June 2017

This million dollar purchase by the Victorian government demonstrates the reach of the ever-growing Global Non-Lethal Weapons Market – a multi-billion dollar export industry in repressive technology that fuels conflicts, human rights atrocities and state repression around the world.  Law enforcement departments everywhere have been sucked in by the slick marketing of this ‘less-than-lethal’ arms industry.  Much of the repressive tech that VicPol purchases is never actually deployed (they have LRAD sound cannons for instance but never used them). Whilst civil and political unrest is very profitable for the companies driving this market, it costs taxpayers millions that could be otherwise spent on people and communities.

If the safety of the Victorian community is indeed the highest priority for Victoria Police – it should look to building trust and accountability.  If the Victorian Government is serious about community safety then investing in community resources, infrastructure and support would be far more effective and perhaps a tad less likely to infringe upon Victoria’s own Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
Police misconduct, police abuse of power, police pointing guns into crowds and dressed up like robo-cops all serve to destroy trust.  Victoria Police already have strained relationships with many sections of our community, do they really want to distance and dehumanise themselves even further?
The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) has reported upon the disturbing trend of state governments passing draconian laws that curb civil and political rights and restricting civil society organisations to advocate.  The actual or threatened use of these sorts of repressive weapons also impinges upon our civil and political rights. If people stay away from a protest out of fear of police then their right to peaceful assembly is being restricted.  If people leave a peace assembly if they see police with weapons then their right to peaceful assembly is being restricted.

So what can we do about it?

The actual use of these new weapons is not guaranteed. Their deployment depends upon the context of the protests, the social and political climate and whether or not these weapons would be seen by media and the wider community as ‘acceptable’, ‘reasonable’ or ‘appropriate’ under the circumstances.
By ‘revealing’ these weapons to sympathetic journalists in such a careful way,  and writing to community organisations and human rights bodies that same day,  Victoria Police were essentially asking for a social license to use them. It is imperative that they are not given this.
If Victoria Police anticipate a public, media and political backlash it will deter use of these weapons.
Likewise, if they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they may face costly litigation after these weapons are deployed then that may also serve to restrict their use.
The role of legal observers, human rights advocates and activist lawyers will be critical if these weapons are ever deployed against members of the public in Victoria

We are citizens not enemy combatants.  Do not deploy weapons on us.  #NotWithYou


Further background:

This new riot gear is part of the $2 billion Victorian State Government package that includes a massive new training facility for special operations police, a $15 million a ‘state-of-the-art, New York-style’  24/7 Monitoring and Assessment (surveillance) centre in Melbourne’s CBD.
Also included is a $227 million IT data intelligence program run by SAS Institute Australia which will merge databases and allow predictive tracking that will make the Cambridge Analytics revelations seem relatively benign.  Body worn cameras, as well as more than 3100 extra police officers are part of the package.  This is all tied up in the Andrews Government’s ‘Community Safety Statement’ which was developed in the context of an Victoria’s ongoing racialised law & order auctions between the major parties.
See also:

Who’s who in Victoria Police

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Who’s who in Victoria Police

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Public Order Response Team (PORT)

Identifying police at protests can be tricky business.

There are often different units with different uniforms and gear, different ranks and then police come to protests with specialist roles.

The identification of individual officers goes to the heart of accountability. It is useful for Legal Observers, journalists, street medics and activists to have an idea who is who. With accurate identification we can get a sense of how different police units might act and more accurately identify police in the case of an incident or for an eventual complaint or legal action.

The Victorian State Government has been investing a significant amount in specialist teams since 2009 when the large Operations Response Unit was established,  including protective armor, new equipment and specialist training. The latest increase in police numbers announced by Premier Andrews in December 2016 included as least 40 new Public Order Response Team (PORT) officers to increase capacity to rapidly respond to incidents involving “hostile crowds”.

The use of specialist, paramilitary style police units has been the subject of much research, analysis and commentary, in particular since the high toll of police shootings in Victoria, many by the Special Operations Group (see below) in the late 80’s and early 90’s and has been driven in part by internal police union agitation to lower police injuries with protective gear and equipment that reduces physical contact (such as tasers and OC spray) for occupational health and safety reasons. But the global policing trend toward military-like tactics, training, uniforms and equipment has undoubtedly been driven by the enormous growth in the highly lucrative international trade in repressive technologies. The rapid investment in counter-terrorism since September 11, 2001 has also resulted in a massive transfer of tactics, knowledge and equipment between police and militaries. Professor Jude McCulloch’s Blue Army, Paramiltary Policing in Australia is a great place to start if you want to delve into this more.

As David Vakallis and Jude McCulloch argue, since 2001 the trend towards more militarised policing at Victorian protests has “escalated such that the clatter of riot shields and the acrid sting of capsicum spray have become something to expect from police at protests.”

A more general discussion on why police choose certain tactics at protests can be found here.

This article, however, is focusing upon identifying the name, rank of individual police and distinguishing between the various police units at protest events in Victoria.

Name Tags

By their own regulations, VicPol members in uniform are required to wear current issue name tags that specify first name or initial/s, surname and rank. (Victoria Police Manual, Uniform and Appearance Standards, Oct 2016)
Despite calls by legal and human rights groups for many years, Legal Observers still note that the wearing visible name tags at protest events is inconsistent and that the ease of obscuring or removing a name tag poses serious problems for accountability.
If police officers cannot be identified then they can act with a high degree of impunity; research suggests that police officers who wear nametags are more conscious of the needs of the general public they are interacting with. Nametags, therefore, are an important safeguard that can help ensure individual police are held responsible for their actions.
By foregoing a nametag, police are able to assume the power of a collective identity without exposing their individuality. This is a process known as de-individuation, and can lead to higher instances of negative or socially irresponsible behaviour.
‘I tried to avoid the police without name badges, it seemed clear to me that they
were more prepared to be aggressive. I witnessed one police officer without a
badge punching a protester in the face.’ Jing, 27. Occupy Melbourne protester 2011

Identifying Police by Rank

Firstly – there are 13 different ranks in Victoria Police – from Constable to Chief Commissioner. The main ones you will see at a protest event are pictured below.

When you are liaising with police take note of their rank.  You should be speaking with someone who is a Sergeant or above and if you want to speak with a senior officer then look for the three pips. Often Inspectors are the Forward Commanders for any large protest but you can always ask for the senior officer or OIC – Officer In Charge –  when you want to speak with the most senior police officer present.

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At large protests police will be drawn from other duties and also from specialist units, depending upon the size, scale and the police’s assessment of the nature of the protest.

OPERATIONS RESPONSE UNIT (ORU)
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The Operations Response Unit (ORU) is a highly visible and trained response team tasked to tackle high-priority public safety, road policing and crime issues across the state.

Operations Response Unit, which was set up around 2009 employs 250-300 staff, has an intelligence cell and has access to about 68 vehicles. It is designed to provide rapid and ready response to major incidents and disasters at short notice.

The ORU members are trained to tackle issues such as CBD violence, rural traffic issues, weapons searches and crime or drug operations.

The massive investment in this new unit was authorised by former Chief Commissioner Simon Overland and boosted by his successor Ken Lay as part of a push to reintroduce ‘low-tolerance and pro-active’ policing across the state. The idea is that if police can deploy in large numbers as early as possible their presence will deter violence. The sheer scale of policing we have seen at recent Melbourne protests have reflected this ‘force of numbers’ approach.

 

PUBLIC ORDER RESPONSE TEAMS (PORT)

The Public Order Response Team (PORT) pictured above and below, are part of the ORU and includes 200 or so police members drawn from general duties who have been provided with specialist crowd control training. PORT is designed to provide a rapid and ‘force of numbers’ response to public order incidents and has dedicated vehicles and riot control equipment.

It was formed in June 2011 partly in response to a spate of ‘out of control’ suburban teenage parties and also in the wake of the London riots of that year. The primary objective of PORT is to “restore and maintain public order in volatile and/or hostile crowd environments and certain emergency management situations.”

They are often sent out to back local police targeting anti-social behaviour and public drunkenness but are also regularly deployed at protest events.   Not all PORT members wear the helmets and protective gear but are most often deployed in formations, lines or units at protests. Depending upon the weather and conditions PORT will have standard yellow vests, clear goggles and look like general duties police.

The several hundred PORT members are trained in specific tactics to deal with public order and “riot” situations.

What is defined as a ‘riot’ and who defines it is extraordinarily problematic.  We know that they have trained with tear gas and full length riot shields that we have not yet seen on Melbourne’s streets.  You can see some of this training on YouTube here.

A note on training. Police training in relation to protests tends to influence the approach taken to protesters.  If police training implies that protesters are akin to insurgents or terrorists and that crowds are inherently dangerous, and concentrates or tactical issues related to riot control, then the attitude of individual police to protesters is likely to be harsh. As we can see in this Victoria police YouTube video, out of uniform police members playing the part of protesters in the training exercise are violent, abusive and throwing objects. Undoubtedly this sort of training would colour the attitudes of police and their approaches to protesters.

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PORT in the Carlton Gardens. Picture: Stuart McEvoy

 

CRITICAL INCIDENT RESPONSE TEAMS (CIRT)

Launched in 2004, Critical Incident Response Teams, (pictured below) provide 24 hours a day, 7 days a week response, which includes a negotiator capability, to incidents  involving firearms, suicide, consular threats or forced entry searches that not meet the criteria of the Special Operations Group (SOG).

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CIRT members at a protest (2016)

They have access to tasers, beanbag (extendable baton) rounds, and machine guns, body armour and helmets as well as armoured vehicles.  CIRT were the first in Victoria to be provided with OC spray / foam and are only rarely present at large protest events where police anticipate violence, (or large assertive crowds that they fear that they wont be able to control without sub-lethal weaponry.)  If deployed, CIRT will usually be kept in the background at protests. They are also likely to have a different chain of command than PORT.

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CIRT at a Melbourne protest, December 2016

SPECIAL OPERATIONS GROUP

The elite paramilitary Special Operations Group (SOG) respond to incidents that are beyond the scope, experience and skill level of (CIRT) at any time.  SOG will be rarely, if ever, deployed to protest events. The SOG are highly trained in anti-terrorism tactics, building entry skills, and conducting high risk searches. Formed in 1977 its main function was, and remains, to provide a response to politically motivated and criminal terrorist activity. They have been known to refer to themselves as the “Sons Of God”.

MOUNTED BRANCH

The Mounted Branch are hard to miss at protests in Victoria and remain one of the more dangerous and controversial units in Victoria Police having been responsible for a huge number of protester injuries over the past decade or more.  Police horses are used to provide support to police at events “requiring crowd control, protests or marches needing public order management”.

Image result for Victoria Police horses

Source: Wikipedia

The Mounted Branch members train with other specialist police units, including the Public Order Response Team (PORT) and are most commonly deployed into crowds when police perceive that police on the ground are loosing control or at risk.   Lines of police horses are used as cordons when stationary, or as moving cordons behind marches, but can also be run directly into crowds, sometimes quite rapidly, to disperse or move people away from buildings or away from police lines. The use of police horses is always problematic in that the risk of serious and life threatening injury to people in crowd situations is extraordinarily high.  When horses are run directly into or near large crowds of people who can not move back it  is too easy for people to be violently pushed by the horses, to fall under, and be trampled.

The Victorian Parliament have not had any regulatory oversight on how police horses are used for many decades and their use arguably impinges upon the right to peaceful assembly.

SEARCH AND RESCUE

The Victoria Police Search and Rescue squad (SAR) conduct land and water search and rescue operations including people missing in remote and difficult areas.  They are equipped with climbing and cutting equipment.  Search and Rescue are commonly called out to protest events when activists chain, lock, U-bolt or otherwise physically attach themselves to buildings or equipment or are required to be removed from tripods, tree-sits or high-location banner-drop actions.   Generally, Search & Rescue members are professional and courteous with activists and many of them have experience with various activist lock-on devices and high location protests.

 

References and further reading:

Vakalis, D., McCulloch, J., 2012, Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue, Militarized Policing and Occupy Melbourne http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-occupy/feature-jude-mcculloch-and-david-vakalis/

McCulloch, J., 2001, Blue Army: Paramilitary Policing in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South Vic Australia.

Specialist Roles with Victoria Police http://www.policecareer.vic.gov.au/police/about-the-role/specialist-roles1

An Tien Hsieh and Shu-Hui Hsieh, ‘Dangerous Work and Name Disclosure’ (2010) 38
W. Heck, ‘Police who Snitch: Deviant Actors in a Secret Society’ (1992) 13

Calls for ban on police horses at public protests Peta Carlyon 26 Oct 2011, ABC http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-10-26/calls-for-ban-on-police-horses-at-public-protests/3600874

OCCUPY POLICING A Report into the Effects and Legality of the Eviction of Occupy Melbourne from City Square, Occupy Melbourne Legal Support Team October 2012.

Do Not Resist” and the Crisis of Police Militarization, Dexter Filkins, The New Yorker, 13 May, 2016,

Police Miltarisation, ABC Radio National Sunday Extra (Audio), Sunday 24 August 2014