Policing the protesters is a tough job, but there must be accountability

The message has been loud and clear from the protesters: they are enraged over the mandating of vaccinations in the construction industry and, with elements of the anti-vax movement in tow, have put their case against being inoculated at all. Images of their sometimes aggressive tactics have filled TV screens for the past few nights. It has been confronting to see the level of violence taking place each day on Melbourne’s streets.

No doubt some of this can be put down to frustration at being in lockdown for such a long period, and far-right groups that have infiltrated the demonstrations are well known for their penchant for violent confrontation. It has been a combustible mix, and a huge challenge for the police.

Police respond to a protest at the Shrine of Remembrance on Wednesday.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Melbourne has witnessed the use of an ever-increasing array of equipment to confront protesters and rioters: rubber pellets, smoke rounds, foam baton rounds, pepper balls and tear gas. All in the cause of enforcing public health orders to prevent COVID-19 infections. The protesters’ behaviour has been deplorable, and the task of police unenviable, but this is law enforcement we rarely if ever see.

It is reasonable to question whether the response was effective and proportionate. Mistakes have been made. As senior crime editor John Silvester has stated, in the past few weeks police tactics have changed and changed again. As he saw it, on Saturday, after public transport to the CBD was stopped, “the reasonable people stayed home and the usual suspects turned up. Then police screwed up. They used ordinary tactics for an extraordinary event, keeping back the public order specialists and using general duties police on the front line. The result was chaos leaving many police feeling they had not been supported by senior officers.”

Police have steadily increased their arsenal. The protest at the Shrine on Wednesday was disrespectful, though mostly peaceful compared with previous days. Police chose to use riot equipment to break up the demonstration and most Victorians would have few qualms about their tactics. There are, however, incidents where police are alleged to have overstepped the mark.

On Saturday, an elderly woman was allegedly knocked down then pepper sprayed as she lay on the ground. An Age photographer was also pepper-sprayed in the face by police despite identifying himself as a member of the media. The Age has asked for a formal investigation. On Tuesday, a Channel Seven reporter was attacked twice by protesters. On Thursday morning Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton told radio station 3AW that police were reviewing footage of a civilian who was body-slammed by police on Flinders Street.

It has been reported that incidents such as this will be subject to an investigation by Victoria Police’s Professional Standards Command and Mr Patton has publicly stated that the police investigation will be overseen by Victoria’s Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission. This is a welcome move as particularly IBAC has proven to be an effective investigative body.

Journalists have an important role at major protests, as the eyes and ears of the public, to witness and report on what is happening. Another sign of police overreach was the banning of helicopters from flying above the CBD and showing live footage of the unrest. Three media companies, including Nine, successfully won a temporary stay of this ban in the Federal Court after arguing that the public was entitled to know what was occurring in the streets of Melbourne.

There is no question that, like few times in Victoria’s past, those wearing a police uniform have become targets of aggression. They have been called upon time and again during this pandemic to carry out orders made by the Chief Health Officer that have severely restricted our lives. Though largely necessary, these orders have gone against many of the fundamental principles of a democratic society and have restricted freedom of movement.

The police do not make the rules, but they must enforce them. It is a tough job not just for the officers, but also for the families who support them. But it’s a job that must come with accountability and transparency. Dealing with aggression is no easy task. But it must come back to finding the right balance, and this in turn comes from the right training and preparation. We would implore that the investigations into these incidents be thorough, timely and transparent.

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