13 Highs & Lows of 2013: No 13 (Alleged) Police Brutality at Sydney Mardi Gras

As I did last year, I am going to end the year by writing about the highlights – and lowlights – of the last 12 months. As always, choosing the best and worst of the year is a subjective process, and reflects my own experiences as a cis-gender gay man, who engages in LGBTI advocacy, in Sydney. But I hope that the list I have selected is reflective of some of the major issues of 2013, at least in Australia anyway. If not, please feel free to tell me why I’m wrong in the comments section below.

No 13. (Alleged) Police Brutality at Sydney Mardi Gras

Let’s begin by remembering one of the true low-points of this year – the (alleged) actions of NSW Police officers which marred Australia’s, and one of the world’s, premier LGBTI events, the Sydney Mardi Gras, in February and March.

As we approach the end of the year, almost 2 million people, from right around the world, have watched the Youtube clip of the way Police officers treated Jamie Jackson on Oxford St on the night of the Mardi Gras Parade. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxtFtVfAeeE)

Jamie Jackson Mardi Gras

Others have read about the way long-term LGBTI activist Bryn Hutchinson was (allegedly) treated by NSW Police officers, also on Oxford St after the parade had finished. Now that all charges against Mr Hutchinson, and his sister Kate, have been dismissed by the courts, he has written about his experiences in the Star Observer. (http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/soapbox-opinion/my-terror-of-crossing-oxford-street-at-mardi-gras/113785)

But it is important to remember that it was not just these two isolated incidents that left a sour taste in the mouths of many after what is supposed to be a celebration of pride and diversity. Nor were instances of alleged Police brutality confined to the night of the Parade and Party, but instead occurred throughout the Mardi Gras Festival.

In fact, Sydney Mardi Gras and ACON received at least 58 complaints about the way people had been treated by NSW Police over the entire Mardi Gras season. These complaints included allegations of intimidation and aggression by Police on Oxford St after the Parade had finished, reports of homophobic language and behaviour at the main Party, of intimidation, violence, excessive physical force and coercion during drug operations at both the Harbour Party and main Party, and other aggressive and intimidating behaviour in LGBTI venues along Oxford St during the Festival.

Since March, Sydney Mardi Gras, ACON, the Inner City Legal Centre (ICLC) and the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) have been attempting to work through these issues in consultation with the LGBTI community. They recently released an advocacy document outlining 12 recommendations to the NSW government, although, with just 2 months left til the 2014 season gets underway, it is currently unclear how many will be accepted by Premier Barry O’Farrell, Police Minister Michael Gallacher and others. (http://glrl.org.au/images/stories/Publications/20131115_policing_at_lgbti_events_and_venues.pdf)

What is likely is that NSW Police will be much better behaved – at least for the 2014 Mardi Gras Festival, Parade and Party. They will be told by their superiors that to repeat what happened this year would reflect badly on the Government (in the media), as well as potentially jeopardising the money that is brought into the NSW economy by Mardi Gras and associated events. They will also be keenly aware that all eyes will be on them come February and March 2014, to see if their poor behaviour is repeated (on camera).

Nevertheless, the real test will come in 2015, 2016 and beyond, when the immediate controversy has died down, media interest has waned, and the temptation will emerge for some elements of the Police (because it should always be remembered that not all Police act poorly) to slip back into the (alleged) intimidation and outright aggression of 2013.

If the majority of the Mardi Gras, ACON, ICLC and GLRL recommendations are adopted (especially recommendations 1-3), then we may see some positive long-term cultural changes within NSW Police, meaning that future Mardi Gras patrons may not suffer in the same way that Jamie, Bryn and others did this year.

But, in my opinion, the two best recommendations for helping to ensure that NSW Police are ‘well-behaved’ at future Mardi Gras events are perhaps the two that are least likely to be adopted by the NSW Government.

The first, recommendation 7, calls for an end to drug detection dog operations. The evidence against the use of sniffer dogs has piled up since legislation was first passed authorising their use, without warrants, in NSW public places in 2001. The 2006 Ombudsman’s Report was damning in terms of their lack of effectiveness, as well as the risks, including health risks, of their ongoing use. In 2011, just 20% of drug dog indications resulted in Police actually finding drugs on the person searched.

The 2013 Mardi Gras experience, especially for attendees of the Harbour Party, simply confirmed the vagueness of what constitutes ‘reasonable grounds’, as well as the gross invasion of civil liberties and indeed bodily integrity involved in a subsequent drug search.

The use of drug detection dogs should end, end of story. And yet, with both the current Coalition, and previous Labor, Governments seemingly addicted to ‘law & order’, that outcome seems incredibly unlikely.

Something which is slightly more feasible is the subject of the other key recommendation (11), which calls for the establishment of a “transparent, representative civilian-led police complaints and investigatory body with the appropriate resources, capabilities and knowledge” to oversee NSW Police. Obviously, such a body would help remedy issues experienced, not just by the LGBTI community, but also by other vulnerable groups across NSW, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, young people and people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds.

It should be acknowledged that the NSW Government has taken a small step down this path, by appointing the former Commonwealth Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, to review the investigation and oversight of police critical incidents (those where police actions have resulted in the death or serious injury of a member of the community). But this represents just a small sub-set of police actions which should be subject to independent review, and it is undeniably a long, and hard, road from this narrow review to the introduction of a broad-based, independent complaints body. We’ll see what happens on this in coming months (and, I suspect, years).

There is one final comment which I feel compelled to make. In the aftermath of the incidents during this year’s Mardi Gras, some members of Sydney’s LGBTI community focused on the possible involvement of Police officers from outside the Surry Hills Local Area Command. Specifically, they argued that if we could somehow return to a (simpler) time when Surry Hills Police were sufficient to patrol the Mardi Gras, supplemented by others from around Sydney who volunteered to be on duty, then the problems of 2013 would somehow disappear.

To me, that ignores a much deeper problem. If a Police officer is going to behave in an allegedly homophobic and aggressive way on the busiest gay night of the year, on Oxford St, in front of thousands of people, then how are they going to treat an individual LGBTI person, when nobody is looking, in other parts of Sydney, or indeed elsewhere in the state?

I am not interested in just having an LGBTI-friendly Police force serving the inner-city enclaves of Surry Hills and Newtown, while simultaneously ignoring the potential for homophobia outside those supposedly safe borders. Any officer, from any part of the State, should be able to be called up for duty around Mardi Gras and behave in a responsible and respectful manner.

Above all, every single officer, in every single station across NSW, must be able to deal with, and respond appropriately to, the concerns of LGBTI people. If they can’t, they should have their badges taken off them, because they’re not fit to be a Police officer.

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