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Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, justice groups urge state to establish police ombudsman

Dechlan Brennan -

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, justice groups and community lawyers have called on the Victorian government to establish an independent ombudsman to investigate complaints against the state's police force.

The calls for police oversight come in the wake of an audit by the Independent Broadâ€'based Antiâ€'corruption Commission (IBAC) which shows Aboriginal people in the state are less likely to have their complaints against the police handled diligently.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) chief executive, Yorta Yorta woman Nerita Waight, told National Indigenous Times abuse of power in the Victorian Police has been "rife for many years".

"Systemic racism in Victoria Police impacts our communities on a daily basis and causes our people to be over-policed, over-represented in police custody and under-served when they seek assistance from police," she said.

"There can be no more delays. There can be no more police investigating police. It is time for accountability."

Her calls come as IBAC revealed most complaints by Aboriginal people against the police were back by evidence, but very few were substantiated by the Victorian police.

"No complaint alleging assault was found to be substantiated, despite this being the most common allegation examined in this audit," the report said.

IBAC also found 22 per cent of their audited files contained "concerning indications" of bias or a lack of impartiality from investigating officers. In some cases, officers were investigating colleagues from the same precinct or station.

Examples included officers dismissing a complaint outright, implying they were lying, or making comments on previous – and irrelevant – interactions. This figured jumped to 41 per cent for investigators, who IBAC argued minimised the seriousness of claims, defended or downplayed officers conduct and often scrutinised the complainant's background.

VALS said Victorians have the largest and most well-funded police force in the country but trust and confidence in Victoria Police are "at an all-time low".

"Over 1,900 complaints were made against Victoria Police to IBAC last year…Less than one percent of police misconduct complaints were independently investigated.

"People who are harmed by police are not being heard. Nearly all complaints against Victorian Police are investigated by police themselves."

It was revealed that trust in the Victorian police had dropped to an all-time low in the wake of scandals and the IBAC report.

Ms Waight said she is not surprised by that approval rating.

"We know from working with our clients that there is a huge amount of police misconduct that goes on without being recorded or reported on. If Victorian's knew the full extent of misconduct committed by Victoria Police, this record low rating would soon be surpassed," she said.

Human Rights Law Centre acting Managing Lawyer, Amala Ramarathinam, said police should be "embarrassed" at how the public views them.

"The status quo of police investigating themselves and dodging accountability for their actions must end," she told National Indigenous Times.

"Effective and truly independent oversight of police misconduct in the form of a best practice Police Ombudsman is long overdue."

Of most concern was that 41 per cent of the audited complaints by IBAC involved people involved 17 years or younger. Almost half (46 per cent) related to the use of force by police during arrests.

Aboriginal people under 18 are nearly six times more likely to be processed as an alleged offender than a non-Indigenous person. They are also nine times more likely to be detained in youth custody.

In December, the Yoorrook Justice Commission was told about "state sanctioned violence" by police when strip-searching Aboriginal children.

Kurnai Legal's Tessa Theocharous said children are routinely subjected to racial slurs, excessive force, and over-policing.

Police Ombudsman Now, a collection of lawyers; including VALS, the Human Rights Law Centre and Fitzroy Legal Service as well as justice groups - all who have worked with people that they say have experienced police harm - have started a petition to call for an independent ombudsman to be set up.

They argue that IBAC was established to oversee government corruption, but police complaints make up the bulk of its workload.

"This situation takes resources away from IBAC's core work tackling government corruption in general, does not serve complainants and fails to hold police to account," the group says.

Waight agrees that the only way for police accountability is with an independent ombudsman that is sensitive to the needs of different groups.

"We have been asking the Victorian government to implement independent detention oversight for many years now," she told National indigenous Times.

"Aboriginal people need to be able to make a complaint to an organisation that is culturally appropriate."

A Victorian government spokesperson told National Indigenous Times that the government is working to improve Victoria's police oversight system to ensure it is "strong, transparent, and meets the needs of all Victorians".

"It is vital we take the time to get these important reforms right. We are carefully considering all feedback received to date and will continue to work with the Victorian community in the development of any future reforms," they said.

"Our Government has increased funding and support for the critical work undertaken by the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission - which includes its police oversight functions."

The Victorian government is currently conducting a systemic review of police oversight, in line with recommendations from the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants and the 2018 IBAC Parliamentary Committee Inquiry into the external oversight of police corruption and misconduct in Victoria.


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