Politics

Australians Are Sharing Their ‘Frightening’ Encounters With Police Over Social Distancing Laws

"The fact that we were shopping for essentials was enough to know we had left the house for a valid reason. I don’t think asking to see in my bag was warranted either."

Civil rights groups set up website for Australians to log issues with Australian police over COVID-19 policing

Australian civil-rights advocacy groups have created a website that collates negative experiences with police enforcing social distancing laws, in an attempt to hold accountable police in a time where they have unprecedented powers.

COVID-19 Policing In Australia was founded last week by a coalition of advocacy organisations, including Amnesty International, Police Accountability Project and Digital Rights Watch. The site invites people to report any “problematic” policing they’ve encountered over the enforcement of social distancing laws, which vary in each state and territory but ultimately aim to curb public movement.

They have received and published 60 complaints in its first two weeks of running.

As per their own bio, the site does not aim to diminish the importance of ensuring social distancing, but state that “many legal and human rights advocates are deeply concerned about how police will enforce these new public health laws”.

“The expansion of police authority–no matter how justified by circumstances–can expand the opportunities for abuse and unjust violation of rights. It could lead to harms, particularly for individuals and communities who already experience a high level of discriminatory policing,” they write.

“We need to ensure police are using their new powers responsibly, fairly, and without bias and prejudice. This site will help us monitor the everyday-impact of new policing powers, and whether they are being used responsibly.”

In The Saturday Paper, 7am podcast editor Osman Faruqi outlined how police issued-infringements in NSW — the only state or territory to publicly release a detailed account of infringements — do not align with the state’s highest infection areas. Instead, lower socio-economic regions with large migrant or Indigenous populations have been disproportionately targeted.

Last week, a video of 10+ NSW police arresting two Western Sydney men — and tackling one to the ground — for eating pizza went viral. A story of a Victorian couple fined $3304 for uploading throw-back holiday snaps to Facebook also caught attention last week, resulting in police revoking the fine.

Now, COVID-19 Policing In Australia is collating negative incidents and calling upon each state and territory government to closely monitor police actions and investigate potential misconduct or discrimination.

This week’s 32 reports made via COVID-19 Policing express a wide arrange of concern about encounters, describing police as acting ‘over the line’, ‘targeting’ and ‘scaring’ people for unjust reasons.

In one, a couple in Melbourne’s CBD were asked to show the contents of their bag after explaining they were on their way to shop for groceries.

“At this point they all just turned and walked off without saying anything. I got the impression that they may have realized they had overstepped the mark,” it reads.

“I don’t mind being asked why we are on the streets but it was not friendly and was more of an interrogation than fact-finding. The fact that we were shopping for essentials was enough to know we had left the house for a valid reason. I don’t think asking to see in my bag was warranted either.”

In another comment, a hospital worker says she was approached by two police-officers while sitting alone in a park on her work-break. Despite that others were doing the same nearby, she was the only one asked to move on.

“I felt discriminated against being an older woman. I also felt quite upset that I was prevented from having some time in fresh air, and the relative quiet of the park and was not able to have a half hour respite from the hospital.”

An evidently distressed international student says they and two others were fined $1600 each for skating in a skate-park, and that the enforcement was harsh and frightening.

“The male police said we were allowed to skate only outside of the skatepark… I don’t understand why there’s hundreds of people in the beach, hundreds of people in the Main Street and shopping centres, and people playing hockey next to the skatepark, and that’s ok…”

“As an international student I’m scared of so many things…they will find me and lock me up, not being able to pay the fine, my visa getting cancelled, and my mental health deteriorating since I am too scared to go out to exercise and many other things.”

Other reports allege police have ‘intimidated’ them unecessarily, and that their encounters felt like an opportunity for ‘police to harass any member of the public’.

Read more on COVID-19 Policing’s website, where you can submit your own report.