LEGAL OBSERVER REPORT: The Policing of the IMARC Protests

Download a PDF copy of this 45 page report here.

Media: Legal observers find police ‘set tone of violence’ at anti-mining protests. Benjamin Miller, The Age, December 7, 2019.

 

Executive Summary

The police tactics, approaches and the behavior of individual police members during the IMARC protest events from Tuesday 29th to Thursday 31st October demonstrated that Victoria Police do not have the tactical or operational ability to manage peaceful but defiant protests of this nature without resort to excessive levels of coercive force that exceed their lawful powers and obligations under the Charter.

A Legal Observer stated; “From the moment we arrived at 6.30 on Tuesday, even with relatively small number of activists present the police were using violence and aggression. They were clearly not responding to ‘escalating tensions’ or ‘risks’ posed by protesters. Police set a tone of violence from the outset. Even before delegates or larger numbers of protesters arrived I witnessed police pushing people to the ground and reacting in a violent and aggressive manner.”

The protest activities that took place in the conference vicinity over the four days took various forms, including a ‘First Nations smoking ceremony, marches, a ‘die-in’, mock dinners, public speeches, musical performances, meditation, and a picket-line-style human blockade of several key entrances.

Most protest activities included or were accompanied by activists chanting, singing, or holding banners. Other blockade protests included people using superglue to attach their hands to roads or to surfaces to slow or prevent removal by police. One person was observed who had locked on to a handrail by a bicycle D-lock.

Prior to any police action, the picket involved activists linking arms and standing in lines in order to block venue entrances. A critical point to make here is that despite this configuration being disruptive and aimed at preventing access to an area or an entrance the actions of people standing in a line, linking arms were not physically threatening or violent in and of themselves (See Figure 1 above). It was the response by authorities to this protest activity that warrants attention.

We noted and were deeply concerned by the targeted arrests of protest organisers – some at the very moment they were addressing the crowd with a megaphone. The deliberate confiscating of megaphones, either during an arrest or by taking them off the ground when left unattended early on the Tuesday 29th was also concerning. This clearly limited protester’s ability to communicate political messages effectively to the large crowd and was specifically mentioned by police liaison and protest organiser’s as hampering their ability to prevent unnecessary escalations. It pointed to an antagonistic and stifling approach to the protest. More than anything it indicated police willingness to flagrantly ignore Charter rights to political expression, not to mention the freedom of political communication protected by the Constitution.

Legal observers witnessed, recorded and documented multiple incidents of excessive, unnecessary and potentially unlawful uses of force, either as a coordinated crowd control tactic or by individual police members using excessive force within a police maneuver or tactic. This policing had a series of obviously harmful physical, emotional and psychological effects on the individuals affected.

Inappropriate and mis-applied tactics

The use of force and crowd control techniques we observed being applied at the IMARC protest event were designed and developed for circumstances where police face direct physical threat.

At the IMARC protest event these same techniques were directed in most cases at people who were offering no direct physical threat to police. The police actions over those three days shocked many protestors, journalists and observers present. That people were scared, injured, and placed in excruciating levels of pain for what was an act of peaceful protest is greatly disturbing.

Victoria Police do not appear to have developed tactics and approaches that can be lawfully applied when a person is defiant or refusing to cooperate with their directives. As discussed in detail below, the law, and Victoria Police’s own internal Regulations and Guidelines clearly stipulate that OC foam cannot be used against a person who is “passively resisting,”[i] yet OC foam was sprayed in precisely these circumstances.

That stipulation is a critical human rights protection for citizens. It means that police cannot threaten or apply force solely to make a person comply with their directions unless there is a clear and proportionate rationale to do so.

Victoria Police appear not to have considered developing tactical options and approaches to managing protest events like this in the 13 years since Victoria enacted the Human Rights Charter.

This report asserts that Victoria Police cannot use the tactics we observed at IMARC and maintain their obligations under the Human Rights Charter.

It is the actions of police where use of force has been applied against protesters who were not physically threatening that will be the focus of this report.

Victoria Police Commander Libby Murphy was reported in the media as stating: “We are doing things lawfully and we are doing things in line with policy and anything that is of a concern to anyone we will review and make our own assessment.[ii]

“Everything the police are doing are [sic] predicated by the behaviour of the protesters,” declared Murphy.[iii]

Justifying or rationalising abuses by pointing to the poor conduct of some protesters is a common response by police during and after protest events such as these, and no doubt police were disturbed by the level of defiance and determination of protesters to physically blockade entrances to the conference venue, however it contradicts a basic principle of human rights protection: that the rights and dignity of a person must be observed despite the behaviour or criminality of that person or other people.

Even the most exceptional circumstances such as a state of emergency do not justify a departure from basic human rights standards for law enforcement.

 

‘Disruption’ is not a justification for unlawful assault

‘Disruptions’ occur every day throughout metropolitan Melbourne. Road works, traffic accidents, street parades, despite their potential inconvenience to ambulances, people using public roads or amenities, or getting to and from work—are accepted by the public and policed in ways which reflect that acceptance and safely facilitate their existence.

When it comes to political protest the rhetoric of ‘balancing rights’ quickly becomes a useful justification to intervene and limit protest rights rather than a genuine attempt to uphold them. We see this in the arbitrary time limits police place upon protesters standing on a road. We also see it when levels of force are used to move protesters standing outside a building that are totally disproportionate to any harms caused by the protest itself.

This claim by Victoria Police of ‘balancing rights’ also creates the misconception that police must be acting impartially. The documented tactics, behaviour, and demeanour of police observed at the IMARC event were far from impartial.[iv]

International human rights jurisprudence clearly recognises that peaceful assembly, by its very nature, is disruptive, can inconvenience, and be perceived as a nuisance by some people, but that “rights worth having are unruly things.[v]

As discussed below, even if the actions of some or a minority of people involved in an event are unlawful, this does not remove the right of peaceful assembly for others collectively. Individual actions that are unlawful committed in the course of a demonstration cannot be used to justify the removal or limitation of the collective rights to peaceful assembly and expression.[vi]

The rights to peaceful assembly, association and expression are explicitly recognised and protected within Victorian legislation and international human rights law precisely due to their importance to the establishment and maintenance of a free, equal and democratic society. The freedom of political communication is likewise protected by Australia’s Constitution.

In essence, the bar to determine whether ‘disruption’ becomes a threat to ‘public order or safety or morality’ needs to be set quite high by police, courts and authorities.  Particularly in light of the extent of disruption caused regularly by other public events mentioned above.

Any policing of civil society actions or events that limits these Charter rights must be lawful; necessary, reasonable and proportionate as set our in et Charter itself.

The United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials is also clear that police use of force must be strictly necessary and proportionate.[vii]

By refusing to move upon the direction of police, IMARC protesters were committing, at worst, very minor (Summary Act) offences. These offenses do not justify the use of batons, punches, kicks, the dangerous use of horses, or pepper spray. People should not suffer bruising, scratches, soft tissue, ligament damage and intense pain from chemical sprays for engaging in civil disobedience.

In many cases noted by legal observers, police failed to give directions, commands or orders prior to police use of force. In effect, protesters were engaged in civil disobedience in order to maintain a picket line or blockade of the conference. Despite chanting and yelling at times, the actions of the protesters, although they included periods of rapid movement and outright defiance of police directions, did not include physical violence.

Police will often use a legal construct called ‘Breach of the Peace[viii] as the reason to arrest, to move-on or use force against protesters—yet that legal term is extraordinarily vague and open almost entirely to the police member’s interpretation and ‘reasonable belief.’ It is not an offence found in the Summary Offences Act, but rather a so-called ‘common law offence’ that permits police to arrest the individual to prevent further breaches of the peace.

Figure 2: Use of police horses was particularly dangerous; Photo, Liam Petterson, Farago

 

The common law does, however, provide some guidance on what may be considered a breach of the peace. Common law courts (in Australia and the United Kingdom) have held that the following do not, in themselves, constitute breaches of the peace:

  • ‘Mere refusal of a trespasser to leave [a] premises’;[ix]
  • ‘Mere disobedience of a police direction’;[x] and
  • ‘Peaceful and non-violent’ protest, even if an activist is ‘loud and  assertive.’ [xi]

In the Max Brenner Case the court held that what constituted a ‘threat to public order’ needed to take the rights of protesters to express their political beliefs into consideration.[xii]

A colourful, loud, active protest that attracts public interest and generates robust discussion may be lawful and legitimate even if it causes inconvenience to the public.

The lawfulness of protesters’ conduct is contested. The various charges laid by police will be heard in court and are outside the scope of this report. A great many, if not most, of the charges laid by police were for an offence that would not have occurred if it were not for the police crowd control tactics employed—i.e. the offence would not have occurred were it not for the police action.

Generating chaos and confusion

Police tactics such as crowd pushes and manoeuvres directly into crowds by the Mounted Branch turned static and peaceful picket lines into dangerous commotions, and generated high degrees of distress and chaos.  The policing tactics understandably caused confusion and alarm amongst protesters.

Legal observers present at the IMARC protest stated that police “set the tone for the protest from the outset,” and that police surges into the crowd, and their hostility and aggression, was “clearly not responding to any ‘escalating tensions’ or ‘risks’ posed by the protesters.” In fact, observers noted that prior to many police manoeuvres, protesters were standing in lines, listening to speakers, singing and chanting like many protests.

The angry, surging, chaotic scenes covered in the television news footage were often the direct aftermath of a crowd surge by a phalanx of police, injurious use of force or a push by police horses into a crowd.

Much has been made in the media commentary of the chaotic, seemingly aggressive nature of the crowd behaviour.

We note that many commentators, including the Police Minister, the Premier of Victoria and the Deputy Prime Minister, would have only seen footage provided by news channels, most of which captured this chaotic, angry aftermath of a police use of force tactic. We advise commentators and external parties to consider the context of news footage prior to making broad public statements about the nature of a complex event such as this. (See Recommendation 9).

This dynamic of police actions generating chaotic and uncontrolled crowd reactions is well documented in the literature of public order policing.[xiii] Even unintentionally, police crowd control tactics can cause panic, distress, generate anger, confusion and create enormous harms far worse than the supposed offence or ‘breach of the peace’ that the tactic is intended to mitigate.   These tactics therefore affect people arbitrarily including the media, legal observers, first aiders, the elderly, the disabled, the young and the less physically robust people present. This is what we saw at IMARC.

 

Tactical options & alternative approaches

Police have a range of non-force tactical options available to them at public order events that present far less risk to everyone. As an example to illustrate this, had the disruption to the conference been a gas leak rather than a protest, police would have facilitated foot and vehicular traffic safely around the disruption, planned alternative access measures with conference organisers and sought to minimise risks to the public and maintain safety. In some circumstances this may have involved finding an alternative venue. The principles of safety and minimising risks to the public would have guided a policing response to many other significant disruptions to an event, building or public thoroughfare such as a traffic accident or medical emergency. As the protest completed soon after midday each day, police had the option to leave a protest in place for periods of time and direct conference attendees well away from the protest area.

As illustrated below (See 1. Police Negotiators) police did not take a Negotiated Management approach to this event.

Notably, the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre has approximately 39 different access points including the car park. As part of their operations, police, undoubtedly in collaboration with building security, locked multiple entrances and left only a few open and accessible to conference attendees. Although there may have been several operational reasons for this decision, it had the effect of most conference attendees having to make their way inside the building via one of the few entrances where protesters were concentrated.   In some cases, police and private security were seen directing or shepherding attendees toward entrances already blocked by the protest picket line. Police were specifically requested not to do this by protesters engaged in police liaison roles. Whether intentional or not, this had the effect of maximising the contact between conference attendees and protesters, which in-turn meant police using the levels of force as described below in order to make a gap in the picket line.

We noted that on the Tuesday police created an entry point for delegates at the Clarendon Street entrance and protesters responded by stretching their blockade line further to prevent that entrance being used as well.

We acknowledge that the protest groups were mobile and determined to block all access to the conference if possible and that police would have been concerned about protesters entering and disrupting the conference from inside had more entrances been available.

It was noted however that by the final day of the conference, venue staff were directing attendees to other building access points, which significantly reduced police and protester contact. It remains unclear why this was not done earlier.

Overall it appears that police did not plan for or did not take up numerous opportunities for a negotiated management approach to this protest event. This is discussed further in 1. Police Negotiators below.

It remains concerning that police chose to apply coercive tactics that maximised the risks to members and the public. Police tactics shifted static, managed, and relatively well–behaved crowds into chaotic scenarios; and, utterly failed to take into account the safety, well-being, or rights of people who were protesting.

Police were obviously concerned about potential ‘breaches of the peace’ and had publically stated their concern over some protester behaviour toward conference attendees. Legal observers present did not directly observe any physical interactions between protesters and conference attendees, although we noted some reported in the media.[xiv]

In general we observed the police response to the public was plainly excessive and generated more harm than that which the police were supposedly attempting to prevent. Police teams would run out of the police line, push, shove, and in some cases arrest people who were simply holding banners or making a speech through a megaphone. Observers noted that police were often confused, reactive and often appeared unsure as to the purpose of a particular tactic.

Police use of force that falls outside police guidelines and regulations is serious and could be determined to constitute unlawful assault by a court.

This report highlights multiple incidents which, if brought before a court, or if were independently investigated, we believe would likely found to be unlawful.

Policy Rules contained in the Victorian Police Manual (VPM) cited below are mandatory and provide the minimum standards that employees must apply. Non-compliance with or a departure from a Policy Rule may be subject to management or disciplinary action.

Amongst other findings, we argue below that it is not possible for Victoria Police to deploy horses as a use of force technique and still abide by its own Use of Force policy, practices and procedures. (see Recommendation 2)

Complaints and accountability

We understand that numerous formal complaints have been submitted to either Victoria Police or IBAC since the IMARC protests. We also understand that many people have decided not to submit complaints due to lack of confidence in the current system of internally handled complaint investigation. It is of deep concern that the vast majority of the many allegations of potentially unlawful police behaviour documented in this report are unlikely to ever by adjudicated independently. To date the current police oversight body IBAC have not scrutinised the varied controversial issues with public order policing in Victoria in any systemic way.

We have included a recommendation for the Victorian Government to enact and resource a Police Misconduct and Corruption Division within IBAC that can independently investigate allegations of serious police misconduct.

A PDF copy of the full 45 page report is available here.


[i] Victoria Police Manual (VPMG Crowd Control)

[ii] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-10-30/climate-rally-police-pepper-spray-protesters-imarc-melbourne/11652182

[iii] https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/police-insist-actions-showed-fine-restraint-despite-violent-clashes-with-protesters-20191030-p535wk.html

[iv] The two most prominent cases of a police demeanour could be exemplified through the reports of one police officer having been disciplined for posting a sticker on his police-issued Body Worn Camera that said, “EAD hippy,” where ‘EAD’ is slang “Eat A Dick.” Another officer was observed to have been making racist comments and was later reprimanded for flashing a white-power hand gesture, to which the media revealed a context of his apparent affiliation with white-supremacist groups on social media. In both cases, Victoria Police at first vehemently denied the reports, and even questioned the credibility of those making the claims, only to admit a short time later that they were accurate, and that they were “extremely disappointed by the situation.” These were the most publicised cases, but can reflect the general attitude and demeanour of the police presence observed throughout the IMARC event.

[v] In considering the need for tolerance of disruptive protest (whether intentional or collateral) the words of Laws LJ in Tabernacle v Secretary of State for Defence [2009] EWCA Civ 23 are insightful:
“Rights worth having are unruly things. Demonstrations and protests are liable to be a nuisance. They are liable to be inconvenient and tiresome, or at least perceived as such by others who are out of sympathy with them.” (at [43]).

[vi] Strasbourg case law which emphasises that a protester does not lose the right to assemble/protest peacefully unless they themselves are violent:
“an individual does not cease to enjoy the right to peaceful assembly as a result of sporadic violence or other punishable acts committed by others in the course of the demonstration if the individual remains peaceful in his or her own intentions or behaviour”. (Ziliberberg v Moldova, App no 61821/00 Admissibility decision of 4 May 2004).

[vii] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/LawEnforcementOfficials.aspx

[viii] https://www.findlaw.com.au/articles/4539/what-is-breach-of-the-peace.aspx

[ix] Jordan v Gibbon (1863) 8 LT 391, cited in White v South Australia (2010) 106 SASR 521 [399].

[x] R v Reid (No 2); Forbutt v Blake (1981) 2 A Crim R 28, cited in White v South Australia (2010) 106 SASR 521 [399].

[xi] Percy v Director of Public Prosecutions [1995] 1 WLR 1382.

[xii] Max Brenner (Unreported, Magistrates Court of Victoria, 23 July 2012). As a Magistrates Court case, it has limited precedential value, but it is significant as it is the first case to examine trespass laws in public places in light of the Charter.

[xiii] See for example: della Porta, D. and Reiter, H., eds., 1998. Policing protest: the control of mass demonstrations in contemporary democracies. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

[xiv] https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/police-clash-with-climate-activists-outside-mining-conference-in-melbourne/news-story/3426da4225b27a15848edbeb1019193c (Mining conference delegates tell of abuse by climate change protesters, The Australian, Nick Evans, Tessa Akerman and Scott Henry)

EVENT REPORT: Invasion Day Rally and March 2018

26 January 2018

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of seven(7) legal observers at the 2018 Invasion Day Rally and March which was organised by the Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance (WAR).

The team observed and noted police behavior, crowd control tactics and interactions with the public from 9.30am until the completion of the event at 3.30pm.

Police presence was significantly larger than for previous Invasion Day protest marches in recent years but moderate given the large estimated crowd size which ranged between 40,000 – 60,000 attendees. 

As MALS has discussed previously, protests by or about indigenous rights, black deaths in custody or land rights in Australia have historically attracted a more interventionist and controlling level of policing than an equivalently sized non-indigenous protest.  MALS has observed this over the past few years where peaceful, well organized and even solemn events such as the Invasion Day rallies are heavily policed despite there clearly being no plans for disruptive or violent action.

Police conduct during the 2018 march through the Melbourne CBD primarily appeared to be generally facilitative and designed to manage the movement of the marchers west down Bourke St, to turn south down Swanston Street and then eventually east down Flinders Street to the march endpoint at Parliament Gardens.  Some Public Order Response Team (PORT) cordons were positions across streets at various locations designed to prevent the march interacting with the City of Melbourne Australia Day Parade down Swanston St. This meant that the march was delayed for short periods of time whilst organisors liaised with police and saw the eventual moving of police cordons.

Police cordons during similar protest events in the CBD can infringe upon the rights of peaceful assembly and association contained in section 16 of the Victorian Charter Of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act (2006). The team present on this day considered the limitation in this instance to be temporary, particulary considering the length of time the marchers chose to remain at various intersections along the route which were unhindered by police action.

The Australia Day Parade was completed by the time the march arrived at Swanston Street but metal barricades along both sides of the road posed some problems due to the large crowd size.

MALS was also noted that police were cognizant of the risk that right-wing groups or individuals would make attempts to counter-protest or harass the rally.  The team noted one incident on Flinders Street where a right wing activist was prevented from gaining access to the protest by police.

We note from the Street Medic team present that only minor heat related injuries were treated.

Areas of Concern:

The Victoria Police Mounted Branch (9 horses and mounted police) was present and maintained a position approximately 50 metres in front of the protest march for most of the time. The presence of police horses in crowd situations poses a significant risk of injury given the size of the crowd, the presence of children, prams and the inabilty of people to get out of their way if they are manoeuvred close to crowds. Although they were not utilised to control crowds at this event, their presence remains unecessarily intimidating and MALS strongly recomends that police horses not be deployed in any crowded or populated area at any protest event due to risk of servere injury.

Use of force:

Legal Observers witnessed and received some reports of use of force by police members in the Public Order Response Team (PORT) as the attendees rallied at the Flinders St station intersection.

One attendee reported that her female friend and an elderly male were pushed back by an police member as they tried to move further down St Kilda Rd/Swanston St when the march initially arrived at the intersection. The attendee reported that the officer was unprovoked and had not issued any verbal instructions or warnings beforehand.

A MALS Legal Observer was also subject to physical force (a rough push) by a PORT member upon arrival at the Flinders St intersection. The legal observer subsequently brought this to the attention of the officer in charge.

Identification:

MALS also notes with some concern that many PORT members were not wearing their official ID badge, despite requirements to do so. Notably, the PORT member who pushed the MALS legal observer did not have their ID badge.

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)

As we have noted numerous times previously, the wearing of visible name tags at protest events is inconsistent and this poses serious problems for accountability.

Media and online harassment of activist

We also note with concern that some sections of the media choose to single out and highlight one provocative statement from the rally and even made it into a headline in some cases.

Legal Observers heard the statement in its context and it was clearly a metaphorical and figurative point as was later explained by the organisor herself.  Singling out this one statement amidst an half day of speeches is no more than racist demonisation. It has served to generate outrage and condemnation from parties who were not present and has resulted in online abuse, threats and harrassment of the organisor.

The abuse or harassment of an activist in any online forums is unacceptable.   Resources to deal withthis sort of online harrassment are available here and here.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) supports activists to defend their civil and political rights by fielding legal observers at protests and rallies, and providing training, resources and up to date information on the right to protest in the State of Victoria. This is the fourth year in a row that MALS has provided support to attendees at the Invasion Day Rally.

 

This Statement is a public document and is provided to media, Victoria Police Professional Standards Command, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC), and other agencies upon request.

For enquiries please contact: melbactivistlegal@gmail.com

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https://melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org/

STATEMENT OF CONCERN: Treatment of Legal Observer 11/2/2017

‘Block the Bill’ rally 11 February 2017, Melbourne, Australia

 

On Saturday the 11th of February 2017 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of three (3) trained Legal Observers at the ‘Block the Bill’ rally that took place on Swanston Street, near the intersection with Latrobe Street, at the State Library Victoria in Melbourne’s Central Business District.

Legal Observers monitored the actions of Victoria Police and recorded evidence throughout the 3 hour event. The following area of concern was recorded at 15:06.

Areas of concern:

Legal Observers noted that three police members acted in an intimidating manner toward a Legal Observer and obscured their uniform name badges in contravention of Victoria Police regulations. The Legal Observer had approached the members to take down their name and unit details from their visible name badges. The police members surrounded the Legal Observer and questioned the content of the Legal Observers notes. One police member moved to within 15-20 centimeters of the Legal Observer and attempted to read what she was writing on her clipboard. The Legal Observer asked for their names, but all three declined. One (1) of the police members then removed his name badge from his uniform while another clutched his collar of his vest as to obscure his name badge.
MALS expressed concern of the intimidating treatment toward a Legal Observer to the officer in charge (OIC) Senior Sergeant John Mason, at the event.

MALS notes that all Victoria Police 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)

MALS also notes that Victoria police are obligated under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibility (the Charter) to protect the freedom of peaceful assembly and efforts to maintain a space where the public can attend the ‘Block the Bill’ rally.

We also remind the public and Victoria Police that civilian Legal Observers are human right defenders and under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, Legal Observers have a right to fulfill their role unhindered and without obstruction. www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/SRHRDefenders/Pages/Declaration.aspx

Contact email: melbactivistlegal@gmail.com

www.melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org

Who’s who in Victoria Police

Image may contain: 2 people, outdoor

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.

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-10-29-04-pm

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)
screen-shot-2017-01-05-at-10-12-17-pm

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

Occupy Policing: The Eviction of Occupy Melbourne

Inspired by the global call for action by the Indignados movement in Spain, the protests and revolutions across the Arab World and the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, activists organised to launch Occupy Melbourne in City Square on 15 October 2011. Occupy Melbourne sought to transform City Square into a ‘common’ space of political demonstration where people could learn, discuss and demonstrate about issues of concern. In particular, the abuses of political and corporate power, globalised neo-liberalism, the imposition of austerity, and the privatisation of public services.

Six days later, in the early hours of Friday 21 October 2011, Occupy Melbourne protesters were requested by Melbourne City Council to leave City Square. A few days earlier, Lord Mayor Doyle claimed that the protesters had a ‘right to protest’ but that this right was time-restricted. ‘A week’, claimed Doyle, ‘was a reasonable time for their mindless shriek of protest’. Assistant Commissioner Fontana was reported as saying: ‘They’ve [protesters] had more than ample time to make their point in terms of what their protest is about and I think it’s time to give the City Square back to the citizens of Melbourne.’ If it is to be meaningful, any political ‘right to protest’ needs to protect how protesters make their point. Continuous protest in the form of an ‘occupation’ was central to the mode of protest that the Occupy Movement took. Placing time restriction on this defeats the specific objective of the global Occupy movement. Therefore many protesters remained in the City Square, and others joined them in asserting the ‘public’ nature of the Square and the right to be in and create open spaces for political demonstration and communication. The Square was fenced off from protesters, and basically surrounded by police.

At around 11:30am, Victorian Police officers from the Public Order Response Team in groups of 4–6 officers advance towards Occupiers and physically remove them one by one, carrying or dragging them out of City Square. Occupiers who have linked arms are wrenched out of that formation. Over 100 people are removed in this way from City Square. Communal and private property was removed from the site. Prior to this violent eviction from City Square a crowd of hundreds gather to watch and support protesters in the Square.

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-10-01-38-amOne year on from the controversial eviction ‘Occupy Policing: A Report into the Effects and Legality of the Eviction of Occupy Melbourne from City Square on 21 October 2011‘ is highly critical of the authorities—Melbourne City Council and Victoria Police—who authorised and effected the eviction. The Report documents the personal stories of people who took part in the Occupy Melbourne protests and their experiences of policing. It complements these personal stories with an account of the relevant law. The Report was published by the Occupy Melbourne Legal Support Team (‘OMLST’) and is endorsed by the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, Fitzroy Legal Service, the Federation of Community Legal Centre and the National Police Accountability Network.

The Report documents the harmful effects of this policing operation both on individuals and also on the capacity and willingness of people to engage in political dissent. ‘Today my whole perception of what freedom means to me in Australia was turned on its head as I witnessed the scariest brutality I have ever seen police conduct’, Emily, 37, stated to the OMLST. The effects of such violence can be traumatising. Many protesters at Occupy Melbourne were new to activism and had no previous experiences of the violence inflicted in the name of ‘public order’. Protesters’ statements collated in the Report speak of the terror experienced from policing operations, including mounted police charging through the protest and the use of dog squads. The Report documents physical injuries sustained in the policing of Occupy Melbourne, cuts, grazes and bruises as well as serious injuries including broken noses, black eyes and back injuries. It also documents longer-term psychological effects. ‘For a while I would feel a wave of anxiety/panic come over me whenever I walked past or saw a police officer’, Sasha, 25, told the OMLST. The Report also argues that such violence has broader political effects in that it has a ‘stifling’ effect and acts as a deterrent to people joining and participating in movements for progressive social change.

The Report examines the various legal bases used to justify the eviction of Occupy Melbourne; breaches of local law; trespass in a public place; common law ‘breach of the peace’ powers, and; controversial statutory ‘Move-On’ powers. The Report finds that none of these bases are substantiated, and that the forceful removal of Occupy Melbourne protesters by Victoria Police and Melbourne City Council appears to have been unlawful.

These findings endorse the comments made by Liberty Victoria President Spencer Zifcak who described the legal grounds relied upon by Melbourne City Council and Victoria Police as ‘flimsy’ and ‘uncertain’. Its analysis highlights the problematic nature of police use of breach of the peace powers to justify repressive action, and points to how breach of the peace powers give police large amounts of discretion and have been used by police to instigate ‘order’ and suppress dissent, especially because these laws are difficult to challenge on the spot.

The use of force in removing Occupy Melbourne protesters from City Square and policing the subsequent protest in the Central Business District shocked the national and international community. Occupy Melbourne protesters were the first in the Occupy movement globally to be subjected to a violent policing intervention. The Report argues that there is ample evidence available as a matter of public record of excessive and unnecessary use of force. The Report documents police use of bodily force such as grabbing and dragging protesters by the neck, legs, arms; throwing and pushing protesters to the ground; punching and kicking protesters, including in the face; use of chokeholds and pressure points; and kneeing protesters in the face and groin. It further argues that such use of force arguably breaches legislative restrictions on the use of force including Victoria Police’s own internal guidelines and that individual police officers need to be held accountable for these breaches. The Report also documents the use of chokeholds, horses and OC spray in ways which were both harmful and arguably in breach of internal guidelines.

Through the course of the morning much larger numbers of Melbournians gathered in the Central Business District. Some gathered to support, some to observe, and some to demonstrate against the forcible removal and policing of Occupy Melbourne. Between 11:45 and approximately 5pm, this protest was pushed by police up Swanston Street, along Lonsdale and Russell Streets. During the afternoon, police used ‘snatch squads’ to grab people—some who appeared to be protest ‘leaders’ and others who were simply bystanders on their lunch break—from the street. Over the afternoon, approximately 100 people were taken into police custody. Protesters were taken to police stations including St Kilda, Heidelberg, St Kilda Road, North Melbourne, Moonee Ponds, Altona, Melbourne Custody Centre and Moorabbin. Others protesters were held for shorter periods. Some protesters were driven away from the Central Business District and released in seemingly random locations, including a paddock in Altona. A large proportion of protesters were held in custody for many hours, both in brawler vans and at police stations across Melbourne. The conditions of confinement were inadequate. The Report argues police were arguably acting outside of their legitimate power and internal guidelines in detaining people pursuant to ‘breach of the peace’ powers. It finds that the actions of police in detaining approximately 100 people on 21 October 2011 may well have exceeded their lawful powers and constituted false imprisonment.

One year after the events of the eviction, as far as the OMLST has been able to ascertain, no protesters have been charged with trespass or with any violent offences relating to 21 October 2011. One year later, the authorities which authorised the eviction and the policing operation have not been held accountable for their actions, individual police officers who acted contrary to guidelines on use of force also have yet to be held accountable for their actions. One year later, it is urgently time for an independent investigation to document and assess the events of the 21 October 2011 in order to authorise such accountability processes. As Tamar Hopkin, Principle Solicitor, Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre writes in her forward to the Report, such an independent inquiry is ‘not only necessary to restore the community’s faith that the rule of law still operates in Victoria, but is required under international human rights law where allegations of human rights abuses have been made.’

The Report can be downloaded from the Resources page here.

Julia Dehm and Sara Dehm