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Data shows NSW police use force against Indigenous people at “vastly disproportionate rate”

Dechlan Brennan -

New South Wales police used force toward Aboriginal people at a vastly disproportionate rate compared to non-Indigenous people, new data has shown. 

The internal police data, obtained by the Redfern Legal Centre via state freedom of information laws, revealed NSW police used force on 28,826 occasions from 2018-19 to 2021-22.

Disproportionately, 45 per cent of these events were against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – despite Indigenous people in the state making up only 3.4 per cent of the population.  

Senior solicitor at Redfern Legal Centre, Samantha Lee, said the numbers obtained are “appalling.” 

“The use of force is a systemic problem. It requires a systemic solution,” she said. 

“The NSW Police Commissioner must address the use of force against First Nations people at all levels of the NSW Police Force, from recruitment to corporate reporting.

“The disproportionate impact of policing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people goes to the heart of the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the criminal justice system.”

A number of high-profile incidents have thrust the light on NSW police – especially in regard to their policing of Indigenous Australians. 

In May, constable Ryan Barlow was found guilty of assaulting a 16-year-old Indigenous boy during an arrest in 2020. A video captured the event and showed Barlow throwing the boy to the ground in unofficial police move known as the “leg sweep manoeuvre.” 

The magistrate heard the evidence given by Mr Barlow was contradicted by video footage. 

Internal police data obtained by the Redfern Legal Centre showed a significant disparity between the use of police force towards Indigenous people and the Indigenous population. (Image: supplied, Redfern Legal Centre)

Associate Legal Director of the National Justice Project Emma Hearne, who represented the boy, noted at the time "far too often, police misconduct goes unpunished".

“I hate to think what could have happened if bystander footage wasn't available,” she said. 

During the COVID-19 Delta wave lockdowns in 2021, the Law Society of NSW observed that many of the locations where the most fines were issues had high Indigenous populations. 

In the aftermath, a Dharriwaa Elders Group, which come from Walgett in north-western NSW released a statement saying that the harm caused by NSW police in their COVID-19 response had damaged community-police relations. 

“Police have a long history as an intimidating presence in Walgett, without a track record of building trust or communicating well with the local Aboriginal community. …” the statement said. 

In February, a report by the state’s Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) found “widespread inconsistencies” in the way police recorded information around use of force incidents. 

“Overall, the dataset suggests there is a widespread under reporting of the use of force on COPS (Computerised Operational Policing System),” the report stated. 

“Such inaccuracies are concerning to the Commission.”

The commission found that 73 per cent of 210 cases analysed contained at least one inaccuracy. The report also noted inconsistencies in the recording of Taser use and firearms. 

Lee said the figures collected that involve the policing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be recorded and used to work towards Closing the Gap targets. 

“These figures…should be collected at a national level and used to inform Closing the Gap reporting which aims to overcome the entrenched inequality faced by too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people…," she said.

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