Complaints will be investigated, police tell forum
SYDNEY: People who were subjected or witnessed inappropriate police action at this year’s Mardi Gras are being urged to lodged formal complaints so they can be properly investigated.
That was the key message at a community forum on policing at Sydney Mardi Gras held last night.
There has been a public outcry over police tactics and behaviour at Mardi Gras events this year, sparked by video footage of 18-year-old Jamie Jackson earlier this month.
The video, which shows Jackson being taken into custody by several police officers, along with a second incident involving Sydney activist Bryn Hutchinson, have prompted claims of alleged police brutality.
Both incidents, widely reported in the media, have unleashed community sentiment that police numbers at this year’s Mardi Gras were disproportionate, their strategies were heavy-handed and the actions of some officers were aggressive.
Hundreds gathered at the NSW Teachers Federation in Surry Hills to discuss the issues with a panel featuring members of the NSW Police Force, politicians and representatives of LGBTI community groups including Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and ACON.
Pannelists said by making a formal complaint, peoples' concerns about policing at Mardi Gras can be adequately addressed.
Making a complaint will also provide a better picture of issues surrounding policing and help inform the development policies and procedures in the future.
The forum was attended mainly by members of the LGBTI community and attendees of Mardi Gras events.
Many expressed their anger at the behaviour of police.
Several people told stories of how they were treated by the police while others gave eyewitness accounts of people being subjected to inappropriate police behaviour such as strip searches, use of excessive force and aggressive language.
Under intense questioning, NSW Police Force Superintendent Donna Adney, the corporate spokesperson for LGBTI issues, and Superintendent Tony Crandell, commander of Surry Hills Local Area Command, were forced to defend police procedures and systems. But they acknowledged some strategies employed on the night could have been better and would need to be reviewed.
BETTER BRIEFING OF POLICE
With more than 1000 officers deployed to this year’s Mardi Gras Parade, many in the audience questioned how police were briefed to deal with the needs of the LGBTI community.
Many officers working on the night were from areas that don't have high populations of LGBTI people and, unlike officers from stations like Surry Hills, Kings Cross and The Rocks, would not normally deal with LGBTI issues on a regular basis.
“Mardi Gras is our event where we need the protection from broader society who are coming in to disrupt our parade for one day of the year,” said one audience member.
“We have serious assaults occurring in Oxford Street all the time, but it seems that what police were severely cracking down on was offensive language and jaywalking,” said another attendee.
“I don’t think their priorities were there.”
Crandell acknowledged that there were some officers behaving inappropriately and that the briefing process may have had its shortcomings.
“Clearly that is something that I have to take away and have a look at that – how we’re briefing these officers,” he said.
“This event is not about aggression, this event is about safety and security.”
Another questioned whether officers were given insights into the cultural sensitivities of the LGBTI community, in light of media reports members of the Sydney Leather Pride Association were asked to cover up their outfits at the Mardi Gras Parade.
“I don’t have a problem with chaps,” Crandell said.
“We have to work on the process. I’m looking into that. I apologise, we could have done better.”
Independent Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich said he will be working to ensure the community has more say in how police are briefed and trained when it comes to dealing with the LGBTI community in the future.
‘STRATEGY WASN’T RIGHT’
It also emerged many hostile incidents involving police on the night of the Mardi Gras Parade were prompted by a logistical matter.
Because the parade had finished thirty minutes early, officers were forced to block one side of Oxford Street until contractors such as cleaners arrived, preventing people from crossing the road.
Several people in the audience said this is what led to their confrontations with police.
“I acknowledge the problems with the crowd,” Crandell said.
“I don’t think that was a good policing strategy and I don’t think we got that right.
“I think next year the barriers should be opened.”
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (SGLMG) CEO Michael Rolik said the matter has been raised with the highest levels of police.
“The strategy wasn’t right, we acknowledge that was flawed. Was it ideal? Absolutely not.
“Will it happen again? No it won’t.”
‘WE NEED AN EXTERNAL INQUIRY’
Some of the most heated moments came when the audience questioned how the police have responded to the incidents relating to Jamie Jackson and Bryn Hutchinson.
Both men are still charged with a range of offences.
NSW Police have launched internal investigations into both incidents.
Both investigations are being overseen by the NSW Ombudsman and the Police Integrity Commission.
Crandell and Adney declined to comment directly on the cases, only to say the incidents were being investigated and were now a matter before the courts.
When asked why the officers involved were still in service, Adney said disciplinary action in the NSW Police Force was guided by a strict internal process.
A heated exchange erupted when one audience member demanded an external inquiry into both incidents.
“Internal investigations don’t bring anything,” said Rachel Evans, a member of equal rights lobby group, Community Action Against Homophobia.
“We need an external inquiry into police brutality.”
Greenwich said he has called for an independent body with powers of oversight to be established but reassured the audience about the role of the Ombudsman in any internal investigation into police conduct.
“I don’t trust the Ombudsman, I don’t trust the independent inquiry,” Evans replied, urging the representatives of the community organisations to campaign for an external inquiry.
“I want you and ACON and Mardi Gras and the Inner City Legal Centre to say, ‘Yes we are going to campaign with all our political might, yes, we are with the community, we want an external inquiry and we won’t rest until we get it',” Evans said to applause in the audience.
GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT
Meanwhile, a crimonology expert challenged the police on their use of drug detection dogs at Mardi Gras events.
Associate Professor Kane Race, an associate of the Sydney Institute of Criminology said "given that there’s no effective oversight and there seems to be a routine abuse of this strategy, it really is major issue because it actually constitutes people as guilty until proven innocent".
A suggestion by Dan Stubbs, Director of the Inner City Legal Centre, to have independent observers monitoring the use of drug detection dogs by police elicited applause from the audience.
ACON CEO Nic Parhill said his organisation has long been advocating against the use of drug detection dogs as a harm minimisation strategy.
“We certainly have to monitor practice on how it is implemented but also we need to advocate at a policy and governmental level for change.
“To control the supply of drug or to minimise the harm of drugs, it is absolutely failing. It actually, we would argue, increases harm.”
“This is an ongoing issue – it has been going on for a while and certainly varies in practice, but at its heart, I think we need to question the evidence on which this is based on, because the policy is flawed.
Parkhill urged the audience to write to the local MPs, the Minister of Police and the Minister of Health about their concerns.
Others raised how undercover police were randomly selecting attendees at events like Harbour Party and the Mardi Gras Party to be searched for illegal substances, despite there being no evidence of possession, questioning the legality of the procedure.
‘THIS NEEDS TO COME TO ME IN WRITING’
Crandell acknowledged that policing strategies employed at this year’s Mardi Gras could have been better.
“Police have to operate within the law and what you’re saying to me now is police were not operating within the law and that needs to be part of the complaints process.
“This needs to come to me in writing. If people haven’t been treated according to the law then that’s something I need to address with the police.”
Rolik urged people to lodge complaints so that organisers gain a better understanding of the problem.
“For things to be acted upon, they have to be in writing – that is how it works,” he said.
“The outcome of a complaint is that it is investigated.”
Rolik said the forum was an important first step in addressing the issues.
“Real change comes from personally understanding what the problems are.
“Today, has been part of the process.
“Real change also comes from working together to solve the problems.
“We now need to move into a phase that is around taking action.
“My job now is to do that.”
Rolik said SGLMG and other community stakeholders would now be working on a series of recommendations on policing at Mardi Gras to present to NSW Police and the state government.
Further meetings with the NSW Police Commissioner are scheduled for this week, Rolik said.