STATEMENT OF CONCERN: The Policing of ‘Extinction Rebellion’

Princess Bridge Blockade and dance protest event Saturday 14th September 2019, Melbourne, Australia

Please Note: A response by Victoria Police to the Statement of Concern is included below.

On Saturday 14th September 2019 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of eight (8) trained Legal Observers at the ‘Princes Bridge Block & Dance’ protest event that took place on St Kilda Road between the Flinders Street intersection and the Victorian Arts Centre precinct.

The protest was organised by sixteen local chapters of an international climate movement, Extinction Rebellion. The widely promoted event was billed as an explicitly nonviolent “powerful, fun and peaceful disruption”.[i] The protest was originally intended to go until 21:00 that evening.[ii]

Legal Observers worked in pairs and were interspersed across the protest site from 11:30 until 15:00, monitoring and recording observed police manoeuvres, conduct and interactions with protesters. The team observed several hundred police working in different Public Order Response Team (PORT) units, arrest teams, the Mounted Branch, plain clothes police prosecutors, the Evidence Gathering Team and witnessed up to forty-four (44) arrests by police.

Over that time the legal observers team noted several areas of concern as described below. Six recommendations to Victoria Police stemming from these observations are included at the end.

A downloadable copy of this Statement is available here (PDF).

1. The police cordon prevented hundreds of supporters from joining the protest thereby limiting the right to peaceful assembly.

From approximately 12:15 police began placing blue and white police tape across the road at the both the north (CBD) end and the south (Arts Centre) end of the protest area. This tape, combined with lines of police along and around the area affectively created a ‘protest zone’ on the Princess Bridge. Police started soon after (from 12:27 onwards) police began preventing people entering or moving through this area including the footpaths on either side of the bridge. By 12:30 the area including footpaths was entirely blocked by police cordons. People were directed to use other bridges to get to the opposite side of the Yarra River.

Importantly, this cordon was established and people actively prevented from accessing the protest prior to any warning of unlawful activity being provided by police.

Figure 2-3: Police establishing a cordon to restrict access to the peaceful assembly. [Photos by Legal Observers]

Reasons provided to Legal Observers and the public by individual police members as to why they were preventing access varied but many cited ‘public safety’ or ‘operational safety’ whilst numerous police members failed to provide any reason for restricting people’s right to attend the protest event.  By 13:00 several hundred people were surrounding the police cordon area at different points with many verbally expressing a desire to join the protest [see Figure 6]. Some protesters who had left the areas to use nearby facilities were not permitted back to the assembled protest. Legal observers witnessed several people attempting to enter or remonstrating with police to be able to enter and join the protest assembled on the bridge. Numerous people also expressed concern on social media (Facebook / Twitter) about not being able to join the protest as they had intended to do.

The right to peaceful assembly is protected at international law. In Victoria, the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) ss15 and 16;[iii] expressly protects and promotes the rights to assembly and expression. Police cannot place restrictions to arbitrarily and discriminatorily intervene in protest.[iv]

According to the Victoria Police Manual (VPM):

All police actions that limit another person’s human rights must be:

– lawful

– necessary, reasonable and proportionate, and

– in compliance with the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006.

Where applied, any time, place or manner restrictions on protest must be in good faith, in accordance with law, and conform to the principle of necessary and proportionate limitation.

Figures 4-5: Police cordons established that prevented access to protest area. Note that no threat to safety was present. [Photos by Legal Observers]

‘Breach of the Peace” powers, often cited by police in these circumstances to move on members of the public, require imminent threat of violence or property damage to come into effect and are far too ill-defined to provide justification for a limitation such as this.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has stated that government action restricting protest need to be specific; they cannot be made in the abstract “or by indicating general, unspecified risks, but must be made in an individualized fashion, applied in the particular case or with a specific justification.”[v]

Melbourne Activist Legal Supports asserts that the police cordon established by Victoria Police around this protest from 12:15 until 15:00, unjustifiably limited people’s right to assemble together peacefully in order to protest. We contend that this limitation on the right to peaceful assembly was without lawful basis or rationale on the grounds of safety or public order. Despite a degree of ‘disruption’ caused by the protest event, this disruption was time limited and no more significant in affect than other large rallies and assemblies held regularly in the Melbourne CBD. There was no threat to public safety present or expressed.

It is the view of MALS that the police cordon was solely an operational tactic by police that allowed them to control the protest, limit its scale and therefore to more easily facilitate the affecting of arrests. This operational reason does not form a reasonable justification for the limitation of such an important right under Section 7 of the Victorian Charter.[vi]

Figure 6: Crowds of people being unable to join the peaceful assembly [Photo by Legal Observer]

2. Media representatives, journalists and camera operators were directed by police to leave the cordon ‘protest area’ from 13:00. This restriction on media ability to film, interview and cover the protest event was without a clear lawful basis.

Legal observers first noted police directing media to leave at 13.04 when Channel Nine news crew was directed to leave.   Other journalists and camera operators were directed to move to the other side of the police tape or cordon systematically over the next 15 minutes.

Police members provided various reasons when questioned by media personnel about why they were being directed to leave, citing ‘safety’ ‘operational safety’ or ‘police operations’. Legal Observers did not record any police providing a lawful reason or citing a legislative power for this action. Police have limited powers to move-on or direct a person to leave an area, particularly a protest or picket. It is not clear whether police were exercising powers under Section 6(1) of the Summary Offences Act 1966 or seeking to apply common law ‘breach of the peace’ powers. In either case is doubtful whether the criteria for the use of such powers would have been met in these circumstances.[vii]

It is an important principle that journalists should be allowed to carry out their duties reporting on a matter of public interest. Although safety was the most cited reason provided by police, media are well versed in covering arrest situations from a distance that does not hinder or endanger police or protesters. The restriction applied at this protest prevented interviews, footage and coverage of the protest being obtained and appeared to be without a clear lawful basis.

 

3. Obstruction of Legal Observers

Although police permitted some Legal Observers to remain within the cordoned ‘protest area’, at 12:47 several legal observers were directed by police to leave the cordoned area. Importantly, this direction severely limited the ability of legal observers to monitor arrest procedures and the use of force when carrying out an arrest. From the distance legal observers were not able to ascertain whether levels of force consistent with guidelines and lawful powers were being used.

Under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, Legal Observers have a right to fulfill their role unhindered and without obstruction. [viii]

Figure 7: Although some Legal Observers were permitted to remain in the cordoned area after negotiation, several LOs were directed to leave. [Photo, MALS]

 

4. Use of Mounted Branch at a peaceful protest

The Victoria Police mounted branch, (police horses) were present at this protest event, forming lines of police horse around the main protest group at the north and south end of the police cordon.

As we have stated previously the deployment of police horses for such public protest events is unwarranted an unnecessarily intimidating.

The legal observer team could see no operational reason for the Mounted Branch being deployed given the number of police present, the nature of the protest and presence of elderly, disabled and very young people. Any use of horses in public environments and amidst large crowds is by its nature extremely hazardous, due to the risk of uncontrolled and potentially fatal use of force. We reiterate our assertion that police horses should be prohibited from deployment in all crowd control applications.

Figure 8-9: Victoria Police Mounted Branch deployed when no operational reason evident. [Photo by Legal Observers]

 

5. Use of handcuffs and zip-ties when carrying out arrests

Legal observers noted multiple uses of metal handcuffs and plastic zip-ties being used as constraints during several arrests. Handcuffs were not used on all arrestees.

The use of handcuffs or similar restraints on a non-compliant person is considered a use of force and should only be used under particular conditions. In this circumstance there were no threats that warranted restraints being used.

Figure 10: Policing using a compliance hold unnecessarily whilst removing zip-ties from an arrestee [Photo by Legal Observer]

Handcuffs can cause ligament, arm or shoulder injuries, circulatory problems and severe bruising, particularly when people are being carried or moved by police.   One person arrested at this protest reported cuts on arms received during their arrest.   Anther protester reported that he was told by police that he was “resisting arrest” when he was only trying to stand up from a sitting position. Numerous people reported that they considered the use of restraints entirely unnecessary, as they had no intention of resisting the arrest process.

By taking a person into custody, police impact a person’s rights and freedoms under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006. “Any use of force must be justified and only to the level required to reasonably effect arrest or removal of persons.” – (VPMG Crowd Control)

In the circumstances observed at this protest event we do not consider the use of handcuffs and zip ties to be justified. We assert that hand cuffs or zip ties should not be used for non-resisting arrestees and not be used in circumstance where people are being carried or moved after choosing not to cooperate with their arrest.

 

6. The carrying of long side handled batons and capsicum (OC) spray

Legal Observers noted multiple police members carrying long side-handled batons and holstered capsicum (OC) spray canisters at this protest event. Legal observer noted one police member carrying OC spray in an unclipped holster (photo available).

As required by VPMP Operational safety and equipment, the Police Forward Commander must give careful consideration to the type of operational safety or other protective equipment that will be carried or worn by members at planned public order operations. “The level of equipment carried or worn should be commensurate to the risk likely to be encountered.”

Figure 11: Long side-handled batons can only be used when a police member is facing a severe threat [Photo by Legal Observer]

The legal observer team asserts that the carrying of long batons and OC spray at this protest event was unwarranted given the risks likely to be encountered. The open deployment of police weaponry is always intimidating and can be perceived as threatening to the public. This threat and intimidation can be, in affect, a limitation upon the rights of peaceful assembly and association if people do not fee safe to come to or remain at a protest.

 

 

Other Observations

The legal observer team noted several warnings being provided by police by megaphone at different times and in different locations and that police provided an individual warning and an opportunity for people to leave the area prior to each arrest.

Legal observers also noted that arrest teams of six or more police members were used to affect each arrest. This provided enough members to carry those people who chose not to cooperate with the arrest procedure and ‘go limp’ relatively safely.  Aside from those issues referred to above this meant that people were not dragged or put in danger of injury by being carried by inadequate numbers of police.

 

Recommendations:

1. Victoria Police consult with bodies such as the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) to review its VPMP Police attendance at events and incidents, operational planning and operation orders in relation to all large civil disobedience protest events in order to ensure that the right to peaceful assembly and association is fully respected and not limited by police cordons and operational tactics that contain or restrict access to protests areas;

2. 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;

3. Victoria Police specifically note the role of media representatives and camera operators within its Crowd Control VPMG and for Forward Commanders to brief operational members of the requirement to ensure the safety and access of media who may be present at subsequent protest events;

4. The Victoria Police update the Use of Force and the Operational Safety and Tactics Training (OSTT) VPMG and associated OST training to specifically prohibit the use of handcuffs or other restraints in protest situations when a person is ‘passively resisting’ or ‘going limp’ and ensure that they not used in circumstances where the person is being carried;

5. Victoria Police ensure that Operation Orders contain risk assessments that acknowledge and incorporate the risk of limiting Victorian Charter rights through the open and visible deployment of police weaponry, police horses and intrusive surveillance by drone or Evidence Gathering Teams.

Policy Rules contained in the Victorian Police Manual (VPM) cited above 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.

This Statement of Concern is a public document and is provided to media, Victoria Police Professional Standards Command (PSC), Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC), the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC), Government ministers, Members of Parliament and other agencies upon request.

A downloadable copy of this Statement is available here (PDF).

For inquiries regarding this statement please contact: melbactivistlegal@gmail.com

About Melbourne Activist Legal Support

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) is an independent volunteer group of lawyers, human rights advocates and, law students and para-legals. MALS trains and fields Legal Observer Teams at protest events, monitors and reports on public order policing, provides training and advice to activist groups on legal support structures and develops and distributes legal resources for protest movements. MALS works in conjunction with law firms, community legal centres and a range of local, national and international human rights agencies. We stand up for civil & political rights.


Response by Victoria Police to Statement of Concern:

Received 3rd October 2019

Victoria Police functions include: preserving the peace, protecting life and property, preventing the commission of offences, detecting and apprehending offenders and helping those in need of assistance. These functions reflect the long standing role of police in our community in protecting the human rights of all people and to only limit the rights of individual people by the least restrictive means reasonably necessary in the delivery of policing services to the whole community.

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights outlines the human rights and responsibilities possessed of every person in Victoria. These include, within the context of public protest and demonstrations, the right to:

  • Recognition and equality before the law (and particularly to be treated with fairness and respect and in a non-discriminatory way)
  • Freedom of movement
  • Freedom of expression, unless this expression harms the rights and reputations of other people
  • Peaceful assembly and freedom of association
  • Be protected from having property taken, unless the law says it can be taken

The Charter also makes it clear in its preamble that “human rights come with responsibilities and must be exercised in a way that respects the human rights of others”. This principle applies equally to police in the exercise of their discretion, as much as it does to any person who may conduct themselves in a way which might affect the human rights of other people.

Victoria Police plays an important role in balancing the rights of all people in the Victorian community, and ensuring the safety and public utility of all public spaces including the Melbourne CBD.

The Melbourne CBD is the location of many protests, demonstrations and public assemblies throughout any given year, and Victoria Police recognises the importance of facilitating peaceful protests and gatherings as an important part of the democratic fabric that holds our community together.

In the context of public protest, Victoria Police officers are required to balance the rights of people to go about their lawful business without being adversely impacted by the unlawful conduct of other people. This ultimately reflects what it means to live in community.

As the Assistant Commissioner North West Metropolitan Region, I am responsible for balancing the rights of individuals to peacefully gather and protest in the Melbourne CBD alongside the rights of all other people in the CBD to go about their lawful business unhindered by the activity of others.

An important element of getting this balance right is ensuring all Victoria Police members understand their legal obligations to protect and promote the human rights of all people as protected in the Charter. I am taking this opportunity to outline how Victoria Police does this, partially in response to some public comments made by individuals who were part of a recent protest in the Melbourne CBD criticising the actions of Victoria Police, to explain to them and to the broader community why we work in the manner that we do.

It is important to recognise that all people have the right to peacefully assemble and protest under the Charter, but these rights are not unlimited and come with responsibilities too on the part of protestors. Also, my members in North West Metro have to lawfully limit the human rights of people in their roles at times, and I fully support them to do this.

Both International Human Rights Law and Victorian Law protects the right to peaceful protest, and Victoria Police recognises that this includes some protest forms that inconvenience the public utility that would otherwise be enjoyed by other people in the community. The protest on September 14 is no exception to this, and Victoria Police allowed individuals to protest on the Princes Bridge in a manner that impeded traffic, trams and pedestrians in order that protestors could convey their political messages in a peaceful way.

On September 14, my operational commanders in charge of policing this protest, having identified risks:

  • public safety
  • of breaches of the peace
  • the commission of other offences, and
  • the rights of other citizens not involved in the protest being unlawfully infringed.

They then made a lawful decision to limit the rights of protestors by dispersing protestors after the protest had been underway for some time. The commentators who have criticised this decision of police note that they had intended that the protest ‘go on until 21:00 that evening’. The operational decision of Victoria Police was that this would disproportionately impact the rights of others and the movement of traffic through the Melbourne CBD, and consequently did not allow this to occur.

To be clear, the policing tactics and response on 14 September 2019 were undertaken to achieve the following ends:

  • to protect public safety (the safety of people not involved in the protest, as well as those who were participating in the protest)
  • to prevent possible breaches of the peace and the commission of other offences, and
  • to ensure the rights of people not involved in the protest were not unlawfully infringed.

All Victorians can expect that Victoria Police will continue to apply this approach in its policing of future planned and unplanned demonstrations in the Melbourne CBD and I would hope that any human rights lawyers and human rights monitors operating in this space would likewise have regard for the rights of all people and consider that with rights come responsibilities.

I fully support my staff in their decisions in this protest, and in the exemplary work they do in policing the many protests that occur throughout the Melbourne CBD.

Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius APM, Northwest Metropolitan Region, Victoria Police

3/10/2019

 

 

 

 


Endnotes to SoC:

[i] ‘Melbourne: Princess Bridge Block and Dance’ Facebook event. https://www.facebook.com/events/346436272910163/

[ii] Event description and sign up form https://www.actionnetwork.org/forms/september-14-dancing-on-bridge/

[iii] https://humanrights.vgso.vic.gov.au/charter-guide/charter-rights-by-section/section-16-peaceful-assembly-and-freedom-association

[iv] Lashmankin and Others v. Russia (European Court of Human Rights, Third Section, Applications nos. 57818/09 and 14 others, 7February 2017).

[v] Maina Kiai, FOAA Online!: The Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly (April 2017) <http://freeassembly.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/FOAA-Online-The-Rightto-Freedom-of-Peaceful-Assembly.pdf&gt;, 20.

[vi] https://humanrights.vgso.vic.gov.au/charter-guide/charter-rights-by-section/section-15-freedom-expression/reasonable-limits

[vii] Police have an ill-defined ‘power’ to direct a person believed to be breaching or likely to breach the peace to leave a particular location. Breach of the peace is any disturbance of public order involving the threat of violence or harm to property.

“This power extends to directing people to move on, or to refuse them entry into an area if such direction is reasonable to prevent an anticipated breach of the peace. The Summary Offences Act provides specific powers to issue a direction to move on if the member or PSO suspects on reasonable grounds that the person is breaching the peace or likely to breach the peace endanger the safety of any other person or behave in a manner likely to cause injury.” (Victoria Police Manual VPM – Procedures and Guidelines – Breach of the Peace. January 2019)

[viii] Declaration on Human Rights Defenders <https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/srhrdefenders/pages/declaration.aspx&gt;

EVENT REPORT: 66 Records Label Launch, Collingwood

Published: 4 September 2018

Available for download here (PDF)

On Saturday 1st of September, to the morning of Sunday the 2nd, September, 2018 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of nine trained Legal Observers at the 66 Records Label launch that took place at the Gasometer Hotel near the intersection of Alexander Parade with Smith Street, in Collingwood, Victoria.

Legal Observers were present in three shifts from 9.00pm on Saturday 1st until 4.00am on Sunday 2nd September. The team was present upon request by the event organisers after Victoria Police informed the event organisers that police would be attending the event.

The presence of independent Legal Observers at events which receive particular policing attention and media scrutiny is critically important. Having trained independent witnesses can be vital for providing objective evidence and accounts after the fact for public and legal purposes. Legal Observer event reports or Statements of Concern are often utilised by journalists, human rights bodies, police complaints departments and legal teams to ascertain contemporaneous evidence and objective data.

Organisors and legal bodies are acutely aware that any events and incidents involving young people of perceived African background are highlighted and subsequent media coverage can distort public perceptions and increase discriminatory and harmful associations. These associations are commonly utilised for political purposes by commentators including politicians. It is often the case that media depictions or characterisations of an event can vary significantly from actual observed reports.

It is important to note that journalists and commentators were not present on the night and did not have contemporaneous eyewitness accounts of events as they unfolded. Having trained and independent observers at events such as these is something we would encourage under these circumstances.

MALS works closely with a range of human rights and legal bodies including community legal centres and teams are often made up of legally trained people, laws students and solicitors who volunteer their time for such events.   All Legal Observers work with MALS in a volunteer capacity.  Observers do not interfere with or hinder police work. Legal Observers closely observe the actions of police, private security and other parties in their interactions with members of the public, provide basic legal information to members of the public about their rights and responsibilities. Legal observers help ensure police and private security agents act according to their lawful powers and do not infringement upon the civil and legal rights of members of the public.

Legal Observers are identified by high-visibility vests with Legal Observer printed across the back and front.

 

Direct Observations

The Legal Observer Team on the night reported that the event was well organised, and the attendees were peaceful up until approximately 2.20am on the Sunday just prior to when the event was due to finish.

Police patrols visited or conducted walk-throughs in the venue eight times over the night. Police were polite and communications with venue staff and legal observers were cordial during each patrol. There was no indications that any altercations would break out during each of these patrols.

The final police patrol was present just outside the venue when the initial fight broke out inside.

At approximately 2.20am Sunday morning arguments and physical fights broke out amongst some event attendees. These fights began inside the venue and later broke out outside as people were exciting the venue.

The large crowd of approximately 200 people were outside the venue due to the event finishing and them being ushered outside. By 2.40am all attendees had left the venue. It is important to note that only a proportion of this crowd were actively involved in fighting. Others were trying to calm the situation or were in the process of leaving the area.

At 2:25 several PORT (Public Order Response Team) had arrived on site and began cordoning off the lanes to Alexander Parade.

At 2.41am Observers noted eight police vehicles stationed along Alexander Parade and Smith Street. By 2.45am an unmarked police 4WD and a police truck had arrived on site. And a line of 14 police were observed moving south down Smith Street.

Observers were not present at the location at the corner of Emma and Maton Streets when a car collided with the event attendees at approximately 2.45am but were present soon after. Three police members immediately attended to the injured person.

Police cordoned off this area as police and paramedics attended to the injured person. The remaining crowd dispersed over the next 60 minutes.

By 3:31am only 10 people remained in the area who identified themselves as either friends or family of the injured person.

Observers remained on site until approximately 4.00am.

Commentary

MALS asserts, based upon our observations, that policing was at appropriate levels throughout the night of the event with regular policing patrols – commensurate with an event of that nature and size. Observers notes that police responded quickly to the incidents outside the venue and more police members and resources, including the Public Order Response Team were in attendance within minutes.

Based upon our observations at the event, the calls by some parties for more police resources, powers or numbers after this event are duplicitous.

It is untrue, as some media outlets have claimed, that “200 people were involved in the brawling. Whilst a minority of the crowd were involved in sudden physical assaults, most others were attempting to stop the fights or were moving away from the venue in the process of dispersing from the area.

The Legal Observers did not witness any evidence of ‘gangs’ or ‘gang like behaviours’ at the event. The physical violence witnessed by observers was predominately between young men who were affected by alcohol.

Whilst the media commentary surround the event has been politicised by commentators almost immediately afterwards we wish to highlight some clearly evident factors missing from the public discussion of the event to date.

Alcohol is involved in approximately 60 per cent of all police attendances.[i]

Excessive consumption of alcohol is a major cause of physical and social harm. Victoria Police’s own data indicates that the availability of alcohol, either in concentrated entertainment precincts or liquor outlets acts as a substantial driver of assault and related offences.[ii]

There is a considerable amount of research and data from the health, hospital and justice sectors about alcohol related harms and strategies about reducing it. The association between the violence that occurred at this event and the perceived ethnicity of those involved is not only simplistic and incorrect; it diverts attention away from evidence-based factors and their solutions.

Our thoughts go to the people injured on the night, their friends and family members.

MALS will field legal observer teams at future events upon request if capacity allows.

For further information about Melbourne Activist Legal Support please see https://melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org/

 

 

 

[i] Miller, Peter (A/Prof). 2013, Patron Offending and Intoxication in Night-Time Entertainment Districts (POINTED). NDLERF Monograph Series No.46.National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund. Canberra

[ii] [PDF]Policing Alcohol Harm in Victoria – Victoria Police

https://www.police.vic.gov.au/retrievemedia.asp?Media_ID=108141

 

#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

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.

http://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/209ea34605f0291d19d307ab749637d3

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).

Image may contain: 2 people, outdoor

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.

Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 9.41.43 pm.png

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

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.