Victoria Police is commencing its most significant reform in two decades. But can it tackle a problem it won’t name?
IT could be any city office. But on the fifth floor at Victoria Police headquarters, something particularly uncommon is going on. A brand new division is beginning its work.
The 20-odd staff members in the Priority Communities Division – a mix of uniformed and unsworn members – are tasked with transforming the way the force deals with the most vulnerable members of society, including recent migrants, Aborigines, the disabled and others who too often find themselves the target of police attention.
“It is a watershed moment for the organisation in terms of how we create better engagement across the community,” says the unit’s boss, Commander Sue Clark. “It hits all parts of the organisation.”
In scope, she likens the changes to Project Beacon, which began in 1994, in a bid to reduce the number of police shootings. Then, all officers were trained in conflict resolution techniques that didn’t involve their guns.
Police reform is always hard won. This time, it began with a group of teenagers in Flemington. In 2008, sixteen young men lodged a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission, saying they were repeatedly stopped, harassed and abused by members of the Victoria Police, sometimes violently, and that it was a breach of the Racial Discrimination Act.
One of the young men, Maki Issa, estimates that police asked for his name and ID at least 100 times in the two years from 2006. One day he was stopped five times, he says. One officer in particular would greet him by name and then insist on asking for his ID. “I was thinking: ‘Is this guy sick, or is it me?’” Issa says.
At the time, he was 15. Besides schoolwork, Issa was training hard for a high-level soccer team, and volunteering as a coach for younger kids from the flats. He’d never been charged with any crime. When the case finally settled in the Federal Court, in February 2013, he was 22.
Maki Issa at a forum in North Melbourne. Photo by Aaron Claringbold.
Victoria Police still denies the allegations, but as part of the settlement, it agreed to review its practices.
Last year, Chief Commissioner Ken Lay described the case as “a waypoint”. “We were going along and we hit this point, and now we’re going in a different direction,” he said.
The force sought public submissions and commissioned expert reviews. On December 30, it released a report, entitled ‘Equality is not the same’, which included a three-year timetable for change.
Among the reforms is human rights training to help members understand and undercut their own unconscious biases and stereotypes. Officers will also receive clearer guidance on when they can legitimately stop people, with definitions of what is meant by the grounds of “reasonable suspicion” and “high crime locations”.
The force will revise its data collection so it can analyse disparities among the ethnicities of people being stopped. And, in a major reversal, it has agreed to hold a trial in which citizens will be given receipts explaining why they’ve been stopped.
For the police force, the Priority Communities Division has an unusually flat structure. But at the top, Commander Sue Clark is its star recruit.
She is renowned for her work on cultural change, both in her earlier stint at Victoria Police and then at the AFL, where she was responsible for reshaping the code’s attitude to women. Her role with the league expanded to dealing with vilification and racism, and social inclusion in general.
It was a rewarding role. The AFL has “led the conversation with the community about really difficult issues,” Clark says. “Footy enabled people to talk about violence against women.”
She began her career with two decades “on the front line” as a police officer at Frankston and Dandenong, working with victims of sexual assault and child abuse. “You could see the problem: the limitations on policing and also on social services,” she says.
Under former chief commissioner Christine Nixon, she helped connect policing with a range of agencies and counselling services for domestic violence, sexual assault and men’s behaviour change. For the first time, they established referrals and confidential information exchanges so people wouldn’t get lost in the system. “When I think back, it was amazing,” she says.
Reports of family violence to police have tripled since the early 2000s – a sign that people have more faith in the system as a whole, she says.
That experience forged her approach to reform: a strong trust in collaboration with “critical friends” outside the force. Her new division is in the process of forming a number of advisory committees, which will represent multicultural, Aboriginal, youth and aged, disabled, and gay and lesbian communities.
“This is a long term journey,” Clark says. “This is not a short sprint. It’s not even a couple of kilometres. This is about changing the way we think, the way we operate and the way we draw on our community to help solve broader community problems. We’re in it for the long haul.”
When the police announced its reforms, the immediate response from advocates was positive, even from those most critical of the force in the past, such as the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre.
Recently, the centre held public forums together with senior police to explain the proposed changes. Anthony Kelly, the centre’s CEO, is cautiously optimistic. “We see this as a crucial first step in a long-term shift to more impartial and democratic form of policing,” he says.
“One of the things we’re facing is that historically Victoria Police have always acted upon the social and political prejudices of the day. We’ve seen that with the policing of Indigenous people, the Irish, and then the Greeks, Italians and Vietnamese.
“The policing of the African community was heavily influenced by the statements of politicians and reflected through intense media stereotyping of African people as ‘problems’.
“Our clients say they were continually trying to explain to police they weren’t part of a gang, they were just hanging out.”
Finally, their complaints have been acknowledged. But the tension between African communities and Victoria Police remains. It can be traced back through many years of warnings and reports issued by advocates, youth workers and the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. After so long, police have much ground to regain.
Near the high-rise flats in North Melbourne, a small audience gathered for one of the joint forums. After presentations from assistant police commissioner Andrew Crisp and others, the panel took questions.
Assistent commissioner Andrew Crisp addresses the forum in North Melbourne. Photo by Aaron Claringbold.
Khadija Alihashi, from Flemington, described herself as “one of the mothers” from the Somali and broader African community. She said there had been ten years of meetings and no change. “You guys bring the big bosses, but where are the local police? They never come,” she said. “We talk and we talk, but where’s the action?”
Maki Issa also attended the meeting. He said that when he joined the racial discrimination complaint, he wanted a receipting policy and better training. But he also wanted an apology – and he still hadn’t received one.
He said the police’s report didn’t acknowledge racism and shied away from using the r-word. “We cannot be scared of the word anymore. As long as we keep the word away from the public arena, it can be okay for people to behave that way.”
When Victoria Police does discuss racial profiling, it chooses its language carefully. Its report reiterates its “critical concern” about the community’s “strong perception of racial profiling by police”.
Likewise, in an hour-long interview about their work, Commander Clark and two senior members of the new division – Superintendent Charlie Allen and Leanne Sargent – managed not to say the words “racism”, “racial profiling”, or even the less-contentious “unconscious bias”.
Clark offered this construction: “the feedback from the community indicated there were instances of behaviour that has caused concern”.
Asked about how it is possible to enact cultural change without naming the problem directly, Clark said Chief Commissioner Lay had “acknowledged that there had been instances and behaviours that we deeply regret”.
Yet, it was clear that all three are enthusiastic about the task confronting them. “There is absolutely a fundamental acknowledgement that we need to change,” Clark said. “We can do things better.”
Such self-censorship may be a nod to the rank-and-file, which has often resisted reforms from high command. There are more than 12,000 uniformed members around the state, many of whom come from a very different era of law enforcement.
When these reforms were announced, the then police union boss, Greg Davies, said a receipting system would be a “rod for the backs of police… already cowed with the responsibility and oversight as it is”.
His replacement, Ron Iddles, says he wants to talk with Clark before passing judgment, and he’s looking forward to Victoria Police consulting with the association on the issue.
One of the independent reports feeding into the reforms, prepared by Professor Michele Grossman and colleagues from Victoria University, included interviews with 20 serving members.
A long-term, mid-ranking officer said many friends of his vintage “are still struggling with the shift in the organisation in the last five years” away from “an us-and-them scenario”.
Nevertheless, the academics found that the members they interviewed overwhelmingly wanted better cross-cultural training, not only in the academy, but also throughout their careers.
One officer described attending an incident between groups of African- and Anglo-Australian teenagers, where they immediately told the white youths to leave. It turned out, with video footage as proof, that they’d held the wrong group.
He reflected that he’d been “programmed” to make those assumptions: “we’ve heard about how much trouble [African-Australians] cause… therefore they must have been the ones that caused the trouble,” he said.
Melbourne University academic Tallace Bissett is completing her PhD research on the experience of young African-Australians with police.
In general, the young men she has interviewed would like less police presence in their lives. Strangely enough, their request may match the wishes of front line officers.
“It is clear that a lot of police officers feel overwhelmed and under-qualified to deal with many of the situations they face. They’ve had all these new expectations heaped on them but their training hasn’t developed at the same pace,” she says.
“Victoria Police is investing a lot of money into Priority Communities. An alternative would be to stop leaving it all to police, and invest in community infrastructure instead – to create places where young people can meet without being criminalised. Maybe what we want is a smaller police force, not a bigger one.”
Abraham Nouk is sitting in his makeshift recording studio in Collingwood, the walls lined with egg-carton soundproofing. Nouk runs an unfunded, informal youth centre and arts space called Creative Rebellion Youth. This afternoon, a young man is travelling in from Narre Warren for help to record a demo.
Nouk’s story demonstrates the personal and societal cost of policing gone wrong.
As a teenager, he lived with his family in Lilydale and Ringwood, and hung out around Dandenong with other friends who’d come from Sudan. He says they attracted constant, unwarranted police attention.
“When it comes down to African youth, we’re perceived as people who are involved in gang activities,” he explains. “That already fuels police hostility towards us. That’s where the boundaries are created.”
He has been held in custody and fronted court. It was getting worse, until four years ago, when he made what he calls his “concession”.
To avoid the police, he avoids the public. He no longer drives, because he was stopped so frequently. When possible, he doesn’t go out after dark.
He believes it is his only choice. “You have to adjust,” he says. “It’s not an easy process – it’s almost like exempting yourself from living fully. That’s just the way it is.”
Recently, Nouk has found acclaim as a performance poet, under the name Abe Ape. He’s been invited to perform at the Glastonbury festival in England in June. “I thought I logged into the wrong email when I received that one,” he smiles. “I logged out and back in again.”
In other ways, he has checked out completely. His lack of faith has bled beyond policing. He is skeptical, too, of social workers paid to pick up the pieces; of businesses that won’t employ African kids; and of people who clutch their bags at the sight of him.
The lesson, Nouk says, is to “acknowledge the fact that nothing is going to change”.
“That’s what I do, that’s what most of us do.”
He has little hope for the proposed reforms, and says the consultation hasn’t found its mark.
“Bottom line, if Victoria Police doesn’t want to admit the problem, it’s going to be a long time before these reforms have an impact. The people affected by it aren’t even speaking about it.”