TEN years ago, Daniel Haile-Michael and his teenage friends felt nervous walking the streets of Flemington: they were scared of being harassed by the police. And then they sued them, for racial discrimination.
Now, in a groundbreaking reform Victoria Police has become the first police force in Australia to officially define and prohibit racial profiling by its officers.
Through changes to its “police manual”, which came into effect at the start of September, the force has formalised a “zero tolerance” policy on racial profiling.
The measures are the latest in a series of reforms compelled the legal action taken by the teenagers. The young men claimed they were regularly stopped by officers for no legitimate reason, and assaulted and racially taunted. Their case began in 2008 and was finally settled in the Federal Court in 2013.
The Victoria Police Manual now defines racial profiling as “making policing decisions that are not based on objective or reasonable justification, but on stereotypical assumptions about race, colour, language, ethnicity, ancestry or religion.”
It states that such profiling is “a form of discrimination” and is illegal. It requires officers to consider under what law or authorisation they are acting when they stop someone.
Ms Tamar Hopkins, from the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, which represented the young men during their case, described the new manual as “a huge improvement on Victoria Police’s previous position”.
Victoria Police Commander Sue Clifford said the changes “underpin all the decisions we make as police”.
“The new policies send a very powerful message to all our officers, employees and the community that human rights are at the centre of everything we do,” she said.
Nevertheless, Commander Clifford said the force has made significant improvements to its culture and training in the last two years. She doesn’t believe it has a problem with racialised policing. “Victoria Police has completed significant work to ensure we do not racially profile in any form,” she said.
Daniel Haile-Michael has now completed an engineering degree, and works at Kids Off the Kerb, a youth space in Footscray.
He welcomed the policy change this week, but said racial profiling remains a problem on the streets. While the situation has improved in Flemington, he said, North Melbourne has become “a new hotspot”.
“What’s really going to be a game changer is if there’s an independent body that investigates complaints that are made against the police,” he said.
Earlier this year, Mr Haile-Michael co-authored a report, The more things change, the more they stay the same, on the progress of police reforms since the settlement of his case.
“Across the state there really hasn’t been much change,” he said. “Almost every ethnic community we met with had similar experiences – the same kind of harassment, questioning and expecting to be pulled over while driving.”
Ms Hopkins, from the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, is concerned about how the ban on racial profiling will be put into practice.
“There is no way to measure whether or not these policies are being applied,” she said. “Unless you have a method of monitoring and enforcing a policy, it becomes meaningless.”
The legal centre regularly lodges complaints on behalf of clients relating to assaults or racial profiling by police, but none has been substantiated, she said.
Acting Commander Mick Hermans is responsible for taking head-office policies to the beat. He oversees part of the North West Metro division, including Flemington. Six months ago, he undertook “anti-bias” training, aimed at undercutting stereotypes.
“It really opened my eyes to the concept of unconscious bias,” he said. “Where you grew up, the culture in which you developed, even watching television for 30 or 40 years, it all has an impact on you.”
The force has not provided anti-bias training for the rank and file, but Commander Clifford said it is “scoping an online learning package” that would “reinforce the principles in the new policies”.
This year in Mooney Valley, Acting Commander Hermans implemented another of the reforms promised to Mr Haile-Michael – a trial in which citizens are given receipts explaining why they’ve been stopped.
He said the receipts are “a positive step towards quantifying” the racial profiling, because they give people proof to back up complaints that they’re being stopped unnecessarily. “If someone feels aggrieved by the process and they’re motivated, the pathway is there to [complain].’’
Victoria Police encourages anyone who has been given a receipt to complete an online survey about the experience. Likewise, community legal centres have established the Stop Watch Vic website, to gather independent feedback on the receipting trial. They have criticised the trial for failing to require officers to collect data on the perceived racial background of the people being stopped.
This article was first published by The Saturday Age. Read it there.