Are Victorian police biased against people of particular ethnic backgrounds? A chorus of voices is speaking out about racism and the force is taking steps to tackle the problem.
BJ Kour took the microphone at the Melbourne Town Hall, on a Sunday in August. “I want to stand up because I’m fired up,” he said with a small smile, which was received with gentle laughter by those gathered to listen, in a stately room with worn carpets. He grew serious. “I am from South Sudan. My story is a real story.”
He related several disturbing encounters with Victoria Police, including one while he was a youth worker in Dandenong. He said he faced charges of hindering an investigation after asking the police for their names during the arrest of two young men he knew. The charges were later dropped, but not before an officer had phoned his boss to suggest he might not be a good employee.
Kour was speaking at the People’s Hearing into Racism and Policing. About 200 people attended over two days, and heard distressing testimony from young men and women of African, Arab and Pacific Islander backgrounds. They told of confronting, often violent, experiences with police, many of which had escalated from unnecessary contact.
Mohamad Tabbaa, an executive director of the Islamic Council of Victoria and a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, described how as a young man of Lebanese background he was constantly harrassed by police. He told of being rounded up with his friends, thrown into divvy vans, and beaten with copies of the Yellow Pages. On trains, he said, they were fined even when they had tickets, because as one policeman said, “you’re a ‘f…g Lebo’’. The harassment and fines continued, he says. Eventually, he felt so humiliated and disheartened, he stopped buying tickets.
Although he never faced any charges, he still carries a debt of about $10,000 in unpaid fines from those years. But he counts himself lucky. “Most of my friends from my childhood and early adolescent days have ended up in jail, on the streets, on drugs, dead or simply unmotivated,” he said.
The event was coordinated by IMARA Advocacy, a youth-led lobby group founded after the death of a young Ethiopian-Australian man in Melbourne’s inner-west two years ago.
One of the facilitators, Reem Yehdego, believes the forum has ended debate about whether or not discriminatory policing exists in Melbourne. “It was an incredibly emotional and heartbreaking two days, but the general responses were of relief, hope and healing,” she says.
Like Kour, a number of young men began their testimony by affirming that theirs was a true story. It was the mark of people unused to having their voices heard.
This time, however, those stories were recorded and transcribed. They will be submitted to Victoria Police, which is holding twin inquiries into its cross-cultural training and the way officers deal with people they stop in the street.
Victoria Police agreed to the inquiries in February as part of the settlement of a long running racial discrimination case. Several young African-Australian men had sued the police, claiming they were regularly stopped around Flemington and North Melbourne for no legitimate reason, and assaulted and racially taunted.
The case is set to have a deep and lasting impact on policing in Victoria.
Among some 70 public submissions to the inquiries, the Law Institute of Victoria provided a particularly strong critique, calling for “profound cultural change” and an “overhaul” of standards, including restricted stop and search powers. The first step, it said, was “to acknowledge that racial bias exists in current policing practices”.
Reynah Tang, the institute’s president, says his members consistently report that clients are regularly stopped for reasons of their race or religion.
Similarly, a submission co-authored by Jeremy Rapke QC, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, stated that racial profiling and racial bias “exists throughout the institution of Victoria Police”. Racial profiling occurs when police stop people, either consciously or unconsciously, because of their race.
In response, the Chief Commissioner of Police, Ken Lay continues to walk a thin blue line, defending the reputation of the force while also rebuking “individuals whose attitudes are intolerable and offensive”.
He says the huge majority police interactions with the public are positive, but the submissions from the People’s Hearing will provide a “wake-up call”.
“I’m not going to try and defend the indefensible, I know that at times our people let us down.”
The inquiries’ final reports will be released in December, and Lay says he is “open to anything possible”.
“I know there is a level of discomfort, distrust and bad behaviour. This is why this work is important to us. Out of a really, really difficult situation, Victoria Police will be a better organisation,” he says.
He has just appointed former AFL executive Sue Clark to a new high-level role. Beginning in late September, Clark – a former senior police officer – will oversee the implementation of the inquiries and the force’s cultural engagement practices.
In recent months, Lay has become increasingly vocal about racism within his ranks. He has condemned a series of racist stubby holders produced by officers, printed with slurs mocking the Sudanese, Aboriginal and Vietnamese communities.
In late June, he recorded a video for his members, in which he described the incidents as “mind numbingly stupid and insensitive” and “a failure of leadership”.
“It has shown me there is a dark, ugly corner of Victoria Police and I don’t like it. It embarrasses me and it should embarrass you,” he said.
So far, however, he has refused to accept that there is a systemic problem with racial profiling.
“It’s an ugly tag,” he says. “It has a connotation of a racist organisation that is out to hurt people. That’s what doesn’t sit well with me.”
At the People’s Hearing in Melbourne Town Hall, Mohamad Tabbaa was clear in his diagnosis: while there is a problem with overt racism among a minority of officers, the gravest issue is pervasive, implicit bias.
“For those of us on the receiving end, we know that the problem of police racism and profiling is endemic. It is a problem of police culture, and not individual attitudes. It is a problem of systems and structures, not of bad apples.”
Among the officers within those systems, diversity remains low. The force doesn’t keep complete records on its members’ ethnic background, but Lay acknowledges that it comprises “a large number of white Anglo-Saxon men”.
The theatre at the Police Academy in Glen Waverley is arranged with blue tables and blue chairs, aligned in rows on the blue carpet.
The room is full of recruits, both uniformed and protective service officers, in only their first and second weeks of training. They’re here for a session called Community Encounters.
It’s a kind of speed-dating the “other”: the recruits rotate among a dozen volunteers from different religious groups, ethnicities, physical abilities, sexual orientations and gender identities.
“People are quite complex,” warns Acting Senior Sergeant Scott Davis, before the conversation begins. “You can’t pick one thing about them and think it explains everything.”
Mohamed Saleh has been volunteering here for three years. He is 27; he grew up in the flats at North Melbourne, and eventually, he’d like to join the Federal Police. He speaks fast – he only gets 15 minutes with each group and he’s got a lot to say.
Saleh describes the cycle of profiling and exclusion he has witnessed, which was a common theme at the People’s Hearing a week earlier. “Listen,” he concludes. “When you get posted somewhere, even if your seniors tell you, ‘Forget Community Encounters, that’s all crap’, remember what you’ve learnt.
“A lot needs to change. It comes down to treating people with respect and dignity. You have power and it’s about how you engage with it.”
But all the questions he fields are about social issues in the flats, not policing. One recruit asks how people there can better assimilate with society.
Saleh isn’t deterred by these responses: “A lot of them are very eager – they want to be good officers,” he says later.
At the end of the encounters, Davis tells the recruits they are responsible for making cultural change in the organisation. “I put it fairly and squarely on your shoulders,” he says.
For now, however, they’re not being equipped to carry that burden. The community engagement training for police officers comprises only about 15 hours out of the 33-week course. Most of those are scheduled during the first two weeks, and some sessions continue to reinforce stereotypes.
On the third morning of their course, recruits hustle into class after a fitness test. The session, on multicultural communities and policing, begins with a discussion of the difference between migrants and refugees.
Then, a liaison officer who arrived in Australia as a refugee tells his harrowing story of state persecution in his former homeland and warns that he didn’t trust police here, as a result.
For the remaining time, the recruits respond to scenarios – they must contend with an Indian and an Afghani man who are fearful and angry towards them. One trainer warns the recruits that people who speak broken English might be faking it, to avoid fines.
In its submission to Victoria Police, the Law Institute of Victoria argued that the academy’s training should be much more sophisticated.
“People have a whole bunch of inbuilt biases, which are a way of coping with a complex world,” Tang says. “You need to critically examine them, particularly if you’re in a responsible position like being a police officer, and understand the assumptions that are driving you.”
American academic Lorie Fridell conducts “anti-bias” training through her organisation Fair and Impartial Policing. It trains recruits, as well as senior commanders in law-enforcement agencies across the US.
Fridell argues it’s misleading to characterise police as overtly racist. Social psychology research shows that discrimination is now more likely to be unconscious – but that doesn’t diminish the problem.
“In policing, implicit bias might lead the officer to automatically perceive crime in the making when she observes two young Hispanic males driving in an all-Caucasian neighbourhood,” she explains.
This kind of stereotyping happens everywhere. “The science tells us that even the best officers might practice biased policing because they are human.
“Agencies need to educate their personnel about how biases manifest and provide them with skills to reduce and manage them.”
That’s the sort of training advocated by the Law Institute. Tang says that without it, the community will lose faith in the force. “At the end of the day,” he says, “this is about community confidence in police.”
Policing the statistics
LAST year, The Age published a story quoting police statistics that Sudanese and Somali-born Victorians were about five times more likely to commit crimes than the wider community.
The statistics appeared to justify racial profiling of people from those communities, in order to cut crime rates.
Yet academics have consistently rejected a causal link between ethnicity and propensity to commit crimes, explains Associate Professor Steve James, a criminologist at University of Melbourne.
He says police statistics “tell us much more about how police behave than they do about the real rates of crime in the community”.
Some people and some crimes are more likely to be reported, policed and prosecuted, he says. Broad comparisons are fraught, too.
“The peak offending period is young men between about 16 and 24. If you’ve got a bulge of that demographic in your population stats, then you’re going to have more crime.”
James Lombe Simon was born in Sudan and lives in Footscray. At the People’s Hearing into Racism and Policing, he spoke about the criminalising effect of those statistics.
“How does somebody trust me enough to give me a job, knowing that I might be five times more likely to cause crime in their workplace? How will somebody let me rent their house?”
Victoria Police subsequently apologised for releasing the statistics, which were used in a briefing with community leaders. Chief Commissioner Ken Lay admits that it was “damaging” for the force’s public relations. “This wasn’t about trying to demonise,” he says. “This was about trying to say, ‘Well how can you get better at preventing these young people falling into a life of crime?’, which we were worried about.”
But Professor James argues that the numbers, which relate to alleged offenders, are unreliable. He says better evidence came from the Victoria Police LEAP database (which records officers’ interactions with people) during the racial discrimination case settled earlier this year.
Those records revealed that young African-Australian men in Flemington were two-and-a-half times more likely to be stopped and searched, even though they committed relatively fewer crimes than young men of other ethnic backgrounds. A statistician for the police accepted these findings.
You can read Mohamad Tabbaa’s full submission at the People’s Hearing at Right Now.