STATEMENT OF CONCERN: Unlawful use of OC Foam 25/6/2017

 

‘No Pride in Hate’ rally 25 June 2017, Melbourne, Australia

On Sunday the 25th of June 2017 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of five (5) trained Legal Observers at the ‘No Pride in Hate’ protest that took place between the Carlton Gardens and Melbourne’s Central Business District.

Legal Observers monitored and recorded interactions between Victoria Police and protesters throughout the 3-hour event.

Legal Observers witnessed two (2) incidents of use of OC aerosol foam during the event. After thorough review of video footage and witness statements, MALS has concluded that the use of OC foam in both of these incidents breached Victoria Police’s own use of force guidelines and regulations. (See VPM extract below)

Police, media representative and members of the public are reminded that the police use of force that falls outside police guidelines and regulations is serious and could be determined to constitute unlawful assault.

OC Spray Incident 1

OC Spray was deployed at 11.42 AM at South West corner of the intersection between Victoria Parade and Nicholson Street. Police had rapidly formed a north-south cordon to prevent protesters crossing north over Nicolson Street and clashing with a far-right group who at that stage, were still situated at south-east corner of Carlton Gardens.

A small number of protesters (approx 6) along south of Victoria Parade, can be seen pushing plastic road barriers away from the police line onto Victoria Parade. The police line was situated approx 5 metres east of protesters, in the middle of Victoria Parade. A group of media photographers and a Legal Observer were adjacent between the police line and the small number of protesters pushing the barriers.

At 11.42am one police member (name/number unknown), came out from behind the police line and deployed OC foam, appearing to target one protester who and had their back turned away from that police member and who was pushing a barrier further onto the road. The police member using the foam canister appeared to then spray it indiscriminately in the general direction of the barriers, and then directing it at the group of photographers and then in the direction of the Legal Observer present. The action was well documented with both written and video evidence. (see Figures 1 and 2 below).

The police member then turned and went back through the police line. This member was not identified.

At the time the OC foam was deployed, MALS saw no evidence of violence or serious physical confrontation by protesters directly towards police. Those affected by the OC foam had either their backs turned away from and were moving away from, the police line or were stationary, as were media, photographers and Legal Observer in the area covered by the spray.

Figure 1: OC Incident 1 – Photo showing people with backs turned away from police being sprayed. No threatening behaviour evident prior to spray. Photo by Legal Observer 25 June 2017

 

 

 

 

Figure 2: OC Incident 1 – Spray then directed toward the Legal Observer. Photo by Legal Observer 25 June 2017

 

 

 

MALS asserts the use of OC spray in this circumstance appeared to be an undisciplined and indiscriminate reaction to a loud and fast moving protest situation and was neither necessary nor proportionate to any risk faced by police members at that time. The OC spray did not appear to have served any protective or crowd–control purpose.

OC Spray Incident 2

A second OC spray incident occurred at approximately 1.00 PM at the north side of intersection between Latrobe and Russell streets in Melbourne’s CBD.

The main body of ‘No Pride in Hate’ protesters (approx 150-200) were marching north up Russell Street. Upon reaching the intersection a large contingent of police formed a line to block northward progress across the intersection and instead redirect protesters West down Latrobe Street.

This police manoeuvre appeared to be instigated in order to prevent further contact with the opposing protest group that was returning to the Carlton Gardens via Nicholson Street. At that point in the intersection, “No Pride in Hate’ protesters were surrounded on north, east and south sides by police lines. Police began loudly shouting “move, move” whilst physically pushing protesters in a westerly direction.

Whilst some protesters appeared to have already turned west, others in the group were prevented from moving in the direction by police lines. Others appeared to be refusing to comply with the police direction. Within a few seconds of the loud “move” direction from police, a member [name/number unknown] deployed OC spray from behind the police line directly into and over the large group of protesters.

It appeared to Observers present that the use of OC spray in this instance was a measure to force compliance with a direction to move, rather than a response to violence or serious physical threat to police or bystanders.

Street Medic groups treating those injured by OC spray reported fourteen (14) people severely incapacitated by the OC spray’s effects, and continued to provide treatment at the same intersection for two hours afterwards. Paramedics called to the scene by the Street Medic team arrived approximately one hour after the incident and treated five (5) of those most severely affected.

Approximately eight (8) Public Order Response Team (PORT) police members arrived at scene about 15 minutes after the paramedics, and were observed to instruct any protesters remaining, that were not being directly treated, to vacate the area. Police used physical force to pull some medics and support people away from those being treated.

This disruption to the treatment and care of injured people appeared unnecessary, as those present were not interfering with the paramedics and in most cases were actively assisting with after-care and treatment. By forcibly moving medics and carers away from people being treated this police action added to the distress of those suffering from the OC spray.

 

KEY POINTS:

  • In each of these two circumstances police were dealing with fast moving protest situation and a loud, chanting and certainly noncompliant group of protesters. Despite this, police did not appear to be facing a violence or serious physical confrontation that would warrant such use of force under common law requirements or 462A Crimes Act;

 

  • The use of OC spray appeared to be deployed in order to force compliance or move protesters;

 

  • The use of OC spray in these two circumstances was used contrary to Victoria Police guidelines. OC spray should not be used as a crowd control tool or to force compliance. (See VPMG extract below).

 

  • In both incidents the OC spray affected an array of people in a seemingly indiscriminate manner; either over a large number of people in a crowd or toward third parties such as media photographers or Legal Observers;

 

  • This use of OC spray reflects similar incidents at other Victorian protest events where OC spray has been sprayed directly at people not directly confronting police or third parties such as Street Medics or media. This reoccurrence may indicate a training and policy issue with its use in protest and crowd situations.

 

  • MALS is deeply concerned by the use of OC spray onto members of the media and independent Legal Observers. Under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, Legal Observers have a right to fulfil their role unhindered and without obstruction.

 

  • MALS recommends that Victoria Police specifically note the role of civilian Legal and Human Rights Observers within its Crowd Control VPMG and for Forward Commanders to brief operational members of the requirement to ensure the safety and access of Legal Observers who may be present at subsequent protest events.

 

  • MALS also recommends that Victoria Police specifically note the role of civilian medical and first aid groups within its Crowd Control VPMG and for Forward Commanders to brief operational members of the requirement to ensure the safety and access of civilian first aiders who may be present at subsequent protest events.

 

  • MALS is also aware of issues concerning the treatment and mis-gendering of trans people who were searched by police under the Control of Weapons Act powers. These are the subject of separate complaints.

 

 

Appendix: Victoria Police Manual 2017 – Procedures and Guidelines(VPMG)

Operational safety and equipment

3.2 Use of OC aerosols

  • As stated in VPMP Operational safety and equipment, members must only use force in accordance with legal requirements (e.g. 462A Crimes Act, common law). In keeping with this, members should only use OC aerosols where they believe on reasonable grounds it is necessary and proportionate in situations: – of violence or serious physical confrontation

– where violent or serious physical confrontation is imminent

– where a person is involved in violent or other physical conduct likely to seriously injure themselves or result in suicide

  • Members should not use OC aerosols when a person is only passively resisting e.g. simply hanging limp or refusing to comply with instructions only.

 

 

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/

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About the Anti-Mask (Public Order) Laws

benny zable

Since our article Anti-Mask Laws proposed in Victoria, was published the Crimes Amendment (Public Order) Bill 2017 has been passed in the Victorian Legislative Assembly and is now law in Victoria.

This article has been updated on 21 June 2018.


PLEASE NOTE: Masks are NOT be banned at all protest events – but ONLY those held in a area that police have declared a ‘designated area’.  (See below for more detail.)


The CRIMES AMENDMENT (PUBLIC ORDER) BILL 2017 was introduced into parliament by the Victorian Attorney General, Martin Pakula to allow “new measures to prevent serious disturbances of public order, including outbreaks of violence at protests, demonstrations and other public events.”

The intense media and public outcry after the clashes between neo-nazi and Antifa groups in Coburg in May 2016 meant that the pressure was on to introduce laws that make it look like the government is doing something about this.

Since then, the rationale for these laws was also conflated with the various outbreaks of youth violence at public events such at the Moomba brawling in 2016.

DESIGNATED AREAS

To understand how these new laws  work you need to understand how ‘Designated Areas’ already work in Victoria

The Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police already has the power to declare a specific area or event to be a ‘designated area’ under the Control of Weapons Act 1990 (Section 10D or 10E) if they believe or assess that there was previous use of weapons in that area or during previous occasions of the event or that they assess that there is a ‘likelihood that violence or disorder involving the use of weapons will occur in that area’.

These ‘designated areas’ were introduced in 2009 to allow police to deal with the perceived rise in youth knife-related crime several years ago, which was disputed at the time.)  Designated areas are now increasingly being used in protest situations.

This provides police with additional powers to search people and vehicles without warrant within that defined area for up to 12 hours.

The new Act provides additional powers for police within those designated areas.

NEW POLICE POWERS

The Act provides additional police powers in designated areas to require a person wearing a face covering to either remove their face covering or leave the area immediately

A police officer who reasonably believes a person intends to use the kind of violent and antisocial behaviour that would constitute one of the new public order offences of affray or violent disorder created by this Act is able to direct a person to leave a designated area.

If the person refuses to comply with this order to leave, they will be committing an offence.

In detail, this Act amends the Control of Weapons Act 1990 with

1) new section 10KA(1) which would allow a police officer to direct a person wearing a face covering to leave a designated area if the person refuses to remove it when requested.

(the police officer must reasonably believe the person is wearing the face covering primarily to conceal his or her identity or to protect himself or herself from the effects of crowd-controlling substances such as capsicum spray)

NEW OFFENCES

The Act amends the Crimes Act 1958 to abolish the common law offences of affray, rout and riot and create new statutory offences of affray and violent disorder (new sections 195H or 195I)

Affray now captures all conduct that currently constitutes the common-law offence of affray. “uses or threatens unlawful violence and whose conduct would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to be terrified” – Maximum penalty 5 years

Violent disorder, committed when six or more persons use violence for a common purpose, and that conduct damages property or causes injury to a person – Maximum penalty 10 years

If committed wearing a face covering the maximum penalty rises to 7 years for affray and 15 years for violent disorder.

OUR CONCERNS

Any laws targeting protesting can dangerously impinge upon basic freedoms of speech, expression and assembly.

It is important to acknowledge that it is already a crime in Victoria to be disguised with “unlawful intent” under s 49C of the Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic).

USE OF MASKS AS POLITICAL EXPRESSION

Police already asking people to remove masks at protests. this is likely to increase with these new laws.

The new law means Police become arbiters of expression versus intent to commit violence.

THE RIGHT TO ANONYMITY

“The right to protest should not be contingent on consent to surveillance” – Liberty Victoria.

At times, particularly in circumstances where a protest is about controversial views, maintaining our anonymity may be critical to allowing freedom of association.

If attending a protest necessarily entails intrusive surveillance from the state or the threat of violence from other groups then you cannot really say we have genuine ‘freedom’ of peaceful assembly.

Furthermore, Victoria Police use of Facial Recognition Technology is currently unregulated

MASKS AS PROTECTION

Masks are commonly used at protests to protect attendeees from OC foam (Including journalists, observers, medics etc).

The use of OC, capsicum foam at protests in Victoria has skyrocketed.

It is inevitable that many people in the vicinity including other police, can be severely affected. In some incidents up to 70 members of the public were affected by spray at any one time.

Scarves, goggles, gas masks or handkerchiefs are used by journalists, media photographers, legal observers, street medics or bystanders.

This law now criminalises that practice.

THE Act CONTAINS NO EXEMPTIONS OR PROTECTIONS

Some anti-mask laws in other countries include exemptions for wearing masks for religious purposes, for theatrical productions, sporting events, parades, civil defence drills and protection from severe weather.

Some, but not all, include exemptions for political expression. There are currently no protections or exemptions in current Act.

STATUS IN PARLIAMENT

The Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) examined the Bill  and referred it back to Parliament for its consideration on the question “whether or not clauses 6 and 7 (police powers in 10KA(1) etc) are suitable, necessary and proportionate limitations on the implied freedom of political communication.”

The Bill was accented to and is now law in Victoria.


The new Act can be read online here: http://classic.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/vic/num_act/claoa201732o2017432/

Some more detailed critique of the law here:  https://melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org/2017/03/14/anti-mask-laws-proposed-in-victoria/

and http://www.premier.vic.gov.au/new-laws-to-stamp-out-violence-at-public-events/

Last year the Human Rights Law Centre launched a report, Safeguarding Democracy, that documents the unmistakable trend of governments at national and state level steadily chipping away at free speech, a free press, peaceful assembly, open government and the rule of law – some of the foundations of our democracy.

Public Statement: Reclaim Australia and Counter Rallies 18/7/2015

18 July 2015, Melbourne, Australia

On Saturday the 18th of July 2015 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of eight (8) trained Legal Observers at the Reclaim Australia and counter rallies that took place near the intersection of Spring and Bourke Streets in Melbourne’s Central Business District.

Legal Observers monitored the actions of Victoria Police and recorded evidence throughout the 5 hour event.

We note that Victoria Police had a large presence and cordoned off the entire intersection in front of Parliament House. MALS acknowledges that Victoria Police efforts were directed at maintaining space between two opposing political groupings on the day in order to avoid physical confrontation.

Areas of concern:

Legal Observers noted several incidents of use of OC foam/spray by a specialist unit of Victoria Police at the event. According to the Melbourne Street Medics upwards of 100 people had to be treated because of the use of this spray. OC spray/foam causes severe burning for several hours, incapacitation and can affect the respiratory system causing breathing difficulties.

A particular area of concern was an incident that occurred at the corner of Spring and Little Bourke Streets at approximately 12:43 PM.  An ad-hoc medic triage station had been set up on Little Bourke Street near the corner. One patient was semi-conscious on the ground and under the care of the Street Medics and waiting for the ambulance. A physical altercation between rival protestors began directly in front of the medic station when Police rushed around the corner and immediately and without warning sprayed into the crowd of 60-80 people present. Street Medics and other volunteers who were trying to keep the medic triage area clear were severely affected by the OC foam as were most people in the area (including journalists and bystanders). The injured person receiving care was again affected by the OC spray.

According to Legal Observers present the OC foam was not directed towards individuals who were threatening police or engaged in violence but instead was directed over and onto the entire crowd of people present. For this reason the MALS Legal Observer Team identifies the use of OC foam in this circumstance as indiscriminate and therefore unlawful.

MALS condemns the use of OC Foam against members of the public who were already injured and medical staff whose presence was made clear to police on a number of occasions before this incident occurred.

In the future as our group increases in capacity we hope to be able to provide more comprehensive assistance in such instances, however we would like to share the following information in the meantime:

We encourage people who want to take further action to immediately record all details from the event, including as much factual detail as possible, and to make duplicates of any footage of incidents depicting inappropriate use of force.

If any individuals or groups wish to submit a formal complaint about police conduct during the event please contact:

Police Complaints Advice Clinic

Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre
Phone: (03) 9376 4355
Email: fklegal@fkclc.org.au

& Website

If you would like to make a complaint directly without checking in with Flemington Kensington:

Police Conduct Unit

GPO Box 913
Melbourne VIC 3001
Telephone: 1300 363 101
Email: PSC-POLICECONDUCTUNITCOMPLAINTSANDCOMPLIMENTS@police.vic.gov.au

Check this page on the activist rights website for more information about making a complaint about police conduct.