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'Heartbreaking to watch': legal orgs perturbed by police brutality

'Heartbreaking to watch': legal orgs perturbed by police brutality

Broken heart, police brutality

Three prominent Australian legal advocacy groups have spoken out about CCTV footage released earlier this week showing an alleged brutal assault by numerous police officers.

The footage, in which Victorian police officers use excessive force in restraining an unarmed disability pensioner at his home, is the latest in a series of media reports about officers in the state restraining people with punches, kicks and repeated use of pepper spray, which have allegedly resulted in injuries.

Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) president Laura Neil said while she didn’t want to pre-empt the outcome of any investigation, it was essential that police live up to the expectations that accompany their respected and trusted positions in society.

“ALA is extremely concerned about the footage which depicts what appears to be a brutal assault of an unwell man who was posing no threat, committed no crime and told police he did not want assistance,” she said.

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“This footage is heartbreaking to watch. It appears to show a vulnerable man being dragged from his house and assaulted by police for no reason.”

“The man told police that he just wanted to be left alone. Instead he was treated with brutality,” she said.

Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) president Belinda Wilson said the footage was “distressing and disturbing” and called for greater transparency around how police are held accountable for their misconduct.

“Victorians deserve a better police complaints management system than what we currently have,” she said.

“It is concerning that the majority of police complaints received by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission are currently referred back to the police to investigate.”

What is needed, she said, is a complaints system that meets Australia’s human rights obligations.

“The Victorian government needs to take a leadership position and establish a complaints system that is independent, transparent and holds police accountable for their misconduct,” she argued.

“We need to take action now to make it clear that any potential police misconduct is unacceptable. We need a complaints system that is victim-centred and ensures public confidence in our police force.”

Fitzroy Legal Service lawyer Meghan Fitzgerald said individual cases such as this are demonstrative of a larger problem.

It is very difficult for people to go against institutional power, she said, particularly where there has been significant violence at the hands of police and there is structural disadvantage affecting those persons.

“Lawyers cannot offer meaningful protection outside the courtroom, and many individuals elect not to lodge a complaint for fear of retribution,” Ms Fitzgerald said.

“When a complaint is lodged, an individual can – in my experience – expect a vigorous prosecution of charges associated with the arrest.”

Given their community responsibilities, police should better understand the importance of the rule of law and the responsible use of powers granted to them, she argued.

“Many of these complaints present lost opportunities for the police force to address and improve methods of response and to reflect on the way in which policing may be impacting marginalised communities,” Ms Fitzgerald said.

Ms Neil agreed with this, saying that police hold an important and trusted position in society, and having good relations with law enforcement is essential for a cohesive community.

Any abuse of that trust must be swiftly and comprehensively dealt with by a thorough, independent investigation and appropriate sanctions, she concluded.

“Police face risks every day to keep us all safe, and we thank them for that. However, when they treat members of the community with disrespect – or worse, violence – we all suffer,” Ms Neil said.

“It is essential both for public safety and community cohesion that when an innocent person is assaulted that the perpetrator be appropriately punished, regardless of what their job is.”

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