Justice advocates are calling for police discretion as the rates of Aboriginal people being issued infringement notices increase in the face of tighter COVID-19 restrictions.
The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT has reported multiple calls from Aboriginal people who have been fined and charged for breaching public health orders.
Calls have come in from across the State, from Western and Greater Sydney to western NSW including Bourke, Brewarrina, Wilcannia, and Walgett.
"We need to protect our communities. The best way to do that is by caring for those who are vulnerable, not hanging hefty fines and prison time over people's heads," said ALS NSW/ACT Deputy CEO, Anthony Carter.
The legal service has heard several reports of NSW Police inappropriately issuing fines and court attendance notices to Aboriginal people.
It has reported a situation in a regional NSW town in which a man with mental health issues who is known to wander was stopped by police.
Despite the local police command being aware of his mental illness, the man was charged with breaching public health orders and is required to attend court.
The service also reported a situation where a teenage girl in out-of-home care was reported as a close contact of a COVID-19 case. She was made aware the police were looking for her and with previous negative experiences, she reported feeling afraid she was going to be "locked up". The girl is now isolating.
"When you make people afraid, they're less likely to come to you if they have a problem," said Carter.
"Many police officers have worked hard in recent years to build trust in the community. All that work risks being undone by just a few weeks of hardline, punitive policing."
On Thursday, a video of NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller was leaked in which he asked officers to put aside community policing in favour of policing public health orders.
He also noted that he would not hold any officer accountable for issuing incorrect infringement notices.
In the face of these comments, ALS NSW/ACT has been advocating for NSW Police to work with Aboriginal communities to ensure community safety and wellbeing during lockdown.
"By ensuring community members are safe and housed, that they have access to food and healthcare, police will do a lot more to curtail COVID than indiscriminately handing out fines," Carter said.
"COVID is a health issue, not a criminal matter. You can't police your way out of a pandemic."
Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney told NIT that the COVID-19 rules are "so confusing and change so often that it is difficult for community and police to keep up".
"Police are working hard to ensure people are safe, and I know people want to do the right thing," she said.
"We must understand the complex historical context of the relationship between police and First Nations people."
She voiced her concern that "even the perception that infringements have been issued unfairly or unreasonably could seriously undermine" public health objectives.
On Wednesday, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) was also deployed to western NSW to combat the rising rate of COVID-19.
Deployed by the Federal Government, rolling out the ADF is part of the Government's attempt to vaccinate vulnerable Indigenous communities.
Speaking to media on Wednesday, Ms Burney described the move as "too little too late".
"Of course it is welcome, but it will not work," she said.
"People remember the army roll in in the Intervention in the Northern Territory. If it is going to work, if it is going to be successful, it has to be done hand in glove with the local Aboriginal community. Otherwise it is going to be extremely difficult."
The Shadow Minister noted the importance of trust within these communities, particularly with regards to the "provision of health".
"That trust will not be there with the ADF ... [this] must be done in absolute partnership and at the direction of the local Aboriginal community â" particularly through the Aboriginal Medical Services.
"The ADF is not the answer right across this country. We can't have emergency responses in the way in which this has been rolled out."
Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe also criticised the decision during an interview on Ticker News.
Why are the army and police being used to treat a public health crisis in Aboriginal communities? Systemic racism. pic.twitter.com/f72s7IqnuV
â" Senator Lidia Thorpe (@SenatorThorpe) August 23, 2021
The Senator described the decision as "systemic racism".
"That is what we are dealing with here, it is a system that is stacked against us. This is a perfect example of that," she said.
"Sending the police and the army into a community that is affected by deaths in custody by the police â" it just doesn't make sense.
"It's either a system problem they need to fix, and ask the Aboriginal people how to fix it. Or, they just have no idea what they are doing."
ALS NSW/ACT are urging any Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person who receives an infringement notice to get in touch for support and advice.
The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT can be contacted on 1800 765 767
By Rachael Knowles