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Yoorrook Justice Commission hears "horrific" testimony of police raid on Aboriginal family's home

Dechlan Brennan -

The Yoorrook Justice Commission has heard "horrific" testimony about a police raid in 2015 that led to alleged assaults of members of the Cruse family.

Eathan Cruse, now 27, his father, Yuin Monaro man David Cruse, 48; and his mother, Narungga, Karuna woman Anja Cruse, 47, appeared at the truth-telling commission to tell recount their experiences about the early morning raid on 18 April, 2015 as part of Operation Rising counter-terror investigation, which targeted Eathan and two of his friends.

Eathan was never charged with any offence.

The hearing, which took place in a closed hearing in March, was made public last week.

Ethan and David both alleged they were racially and physically abused by Victorian and federal police officers in legal cases put towards the Victorian Supreme Court. Eathan was awarded $400,000 and David settled confidentially.

During the hearing Eathan, then 19, told of his fear when police broke down windows and stormed the house. He said that after identifying himself to police he was attacked and hurt by the police.

"[I] copped it in the head a few times. After that, [they] picked me up, took me to the kitchen, slammed me across the fridge and put me on the ground, and that's when the beating actually started," he said.

"I was just getting hit from all sides, felt like they were taking turns beating me up, because I can't see who's behind me, felt like a few of them were hitting me. I ended up passing out as they were beating me…"

He told the commission he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.

"I lost a lot of, like, a lot of friends," he said.

"Ended up, like, taking drugs, I probably did for about three years, four years, and yeah, left a big impact on my life that's here to stay."

His father David told of hearing the kitchen window and door "smashing out" and not knowing who was entering.

"Not once did they identify themselves," Mr Cruse told the Yoorrook Justice Commission.

"They were all bellied up, machine guns waving around everywhere in your face…not once were we told, 'This is the police, we've got a search warrant', not once, until they dragged us all out of the house."

David Cruse also discussed some of the alleged racial slurs he was called during the raid. He told the commission that after telling the police to "leave my boy alone, you dogs," they responded: "'I've told you to shut up, you black c**t." Later, he recounted that "I was called a black Abo as well…"

Anja Cruse agreed with Mr Cruse, noting that the raiding officers were "very racial".

The Cruses made a complaint in 2015 and the police took no action.

During the five-day Supreme Court trial in 2019, Justice Richards said that she agreed with the testimony of Eathan Cruse, describing him as a "truthful witness".

Justice Richards condemned the police involved, saying she believed one officer was not a "truthful witness," and two officers had corroborated stories to make their statements match, calling it "more than 'poor practice'".

Justice Richards later described the police conduct during the raid as both cowardly and a "brutal attack".

The charges against Eathan were dropped, with Justice Richards stating: "On the evidence before the court there were no reasonable grounds for anyone to suspect you of having committed or been in the process of committing an offence."

On 7 December 2020, after apologising for a delay, the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) sent a letter to the Cruse's lawyer advising them that: "As a result of this review, IBAC determined that, on the basis of the evidence available at the time, Victoria Police should have concluded that the complaint in relation to the excessive use of force against you was substantiated rather than not substantiated."

However, two years later, the Victorian police told Guardian Australia that they would continue to uphold their original findings which determined the officers had not acted unlawfully.

The Cruses said they were never told about this and learned it from the news media. They have also been offered no apology by the state.

David Cruse told the commission that he would like the officers to be held accountable.

"If you work for the law, you got to be accountable for the law. [You] just can't put the law in your own hands. You think you can put the law in your own hands and dish it out, well then, you should be held accountable for your actions, like all the rest of us," he said.

Eathan argued that the complaints system was broken if police were allowed to investigate themselves and have the final say.

"A Supreme Court Justice, if they can't convince police to change their position, like, no-one will," he told the commission.

"I reckon the police complaints system is broken. I reckon we need an independent police complaints system and, yeah, just - we deserve our apology.

"There are probably, you know, Indigenous folk out there who have been beaten by police and haven't come forward about it. I think the police have been doing it for too long."

Professor Eleanor Bourke, the chair of the Yoorrook Justice Commission, lauded the Cruses for appearing at the hearing, saying it showed "great strength and bravery, despite this horrific, horrific story".

"I do hope you find some solace in just speaking to us, because it was one of the reasons we're here," she said.

Robinson Gill Lawyers Principal Lawyer Ali Besiroglu told National Indigenous Times: "It's deeply insulting to our First Nations clients when Victoria Police refuses to acknowledge wrongdoing despite the Supreme Court and IBAC finding overwhelming evidence to the contrary."

"It severs community trust in the police complaints mechanism and highlights the entrenched culture of impunity within Victoria Police. The Cruse family's case is a primary example of why Victoria urgently needs an independent police ombudsman," he said.

The hearings come in the wake of Victoria's chief police commissioner Shane Patton issuing an unreserved apology for the trauma inflicted on the state's First Nations people by the Victorian police – both past and present.

A Victoria Police spokesperson told National Indigenous Times that "this matter was thoroughly investigated by Professional Standards Command and this investigation did not identify any criminal or discipline offences".

"Following the IBAC recommendation, a review was conducted by Victoria Police however it was determined that insufficient evidence existed and the findings of the initial investigation were not changed. The Chief Commissioner in his testimony to the Yoorrook Justice Commission on 8 May stated Victoria Police was open to operating with any external oversight body or framework which the government puts in place," they said.

National Indigenous Times has contacted the Victorian Police Minister for comment.

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