This article re-published with permission. Originally published 13 December 2017 at Kieran’s Review.
The front page of Sunday’s Herald Sun bore a message from on high for Victoria’s political caste, the Police Association have issued their ‘pre-election wish list’. There is an election next year, and support or opposition from the coppers ‘union’ will make or break political careers.
Oddly, the coverage in Melbourne’s press (and in particular in the Herald Sun who carried it as front page news) was not outrage at the sheer gumption of a ‘union’ setting a price on an election, but rather a ringing endorsement.
There is a disturbingly close relationship between the Police Association, the Herald Sun, and the Liberal Party in Victoria. During the Simon Overland affair (2010-11) this relationship was blatant.
The Victoria Police Association was at war with the Police Commissioner. The parliamentary secretary for police (Liberal MP and former Police Officer Bill Tilley) and an advisor to the deputy Premier ran a campaign out of the deputy Premier’s office to destabilize the Police Commissioner in favour of the Police Association’s preferred replacement (Sir Ken Jones). The Herald Sun uncritically published their leaks and forcefully backed the Police Association position (for particular coverage of the media’s role, see Media Watch, Look Both Ways Before Crossing the Line).
An investigation by the Office of Police Integrity (Full OPI report: Crossing the Line) rocked the Baillieu Liberal government. The Police Association had the last laugh when the Liberal Government abolished the Office of Police Integrity in favour of a new “Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission”, a commission that by its own assessment, was designed to be a toothless tiger.
The power of the Police Association has continued to grow since the Overland affair. At every election the Police Association issues a set of demands, the Liberal Party and the Herald Sun quickly attack Labor for failing to concede to these demands fast enough, and Labor hurries to offer more in an attempt to head off the prospect of Police Association retribution.
In 2010 the Police Association wanted 1500 new police; the Liberal Party jumped, promising 1700 police and armed guards at every train station to boot. In 2014 they wanted “anywhere between 1500 and 2000 additional frontline police in the next term of government”. Then Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews promised to deliver.
This elections’ set of demands is more modest: the Police Association wants an extra 500 members and some new toys. This would be on top of last year’s commitment by the Andrews government to recruit a further 2,729 new police and rebuild a number of police stations (it’s crept up to 3,139 new police in recent media releases).
Police recruitment is big business for the Police Association, as John Silvester pointed out in an article earlier this year:
“Every time the government of the day promises to boost numbers it makes the Association more powerful – the recent announcement of a net increase of 3000 will boost revenue by $2.5 million in membership dues.
As it stands the Association makes nearly $500,000 a fortnight in subscriptions, owns its own National Trust building in East Melbourne, a swag of holiday properties, has legal officers, welfare staff, runs a legacy program for police families and has assets of around $45 million.”
But the Police Association’s agenda goes well beyond a desire for more dues-paying members. The Police Association loves new gadgets, new weapons, new powers, and greater impunity.
This election they want guns that shoot GPS trackers, and legal indemnity for police “who take reasonable steps to end pursuits”. That last demand is particularly concerning.
Car-chase pursuits, aside from being great fun, kill people and destroy property. Unfortunately, killjoys (also known as experts backed up by evidence) have repeatedly suggested that police pursuits are largely redundant in the information age, where high quality police cameras and license plate readers ensure that almost everyone is identified and caught eventually.
Whilst other states have moved to restricting the circumstances in which police are permitted to engage in high speed pursuits, the Victorian Police Association seems determined to push back. They want their chases, and they’re dead set against legal consequences for officers who endanger lives.
* * *
Victoria has seen an alarming growth in the size, powers and weaponry employed by a dazzling array of “specialist police”.
Pepper spray was introduced to the Victoria Police arsenal in the late 1990s, it was meant to provide police with ‘options between shouting and shooting’. The Victoria Police manual “very clearly specified that it should only be used in really violent or confrontational situations of serious physical confrontation”. Guidelines restricting the use of pepper spray to situations of “serious physical confrontation” disappeared from the Police Manual in 2011.
Update: These guidelines were reinstated following advocacy by Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre in 2011, thanks for the correction AK!.
Pepper spray is now liberally used by both Police and Protective Services Officers. Public Order Response Team members now routinely carry MK 9 OC foam cans, it’s manufacturer describes the MK9 canister as a “crowd management product” that can deliver damage to skin, eyes and airways across a wide arc at over 25 feet.
The Police Association similarly backed the introduction of tasers in the aftermath of the police shooting of Tyler Cassidy. Again this ‘less lethal’ electric weapon was meant to be used as a alternative to a firearm in very specific situations, unsurprisingly as tasers have become more widespread, so has usage creep.
Every growth in police powers and equipment results in the greater use of police violence and police weaponry. In March this year, the Critical Incident Response Team was equipped with new SIG Sauer automatic “machine guns”. In July, when general duties officers should probably have told a party goer to bin the prop gun that was part of his Joker costume, police instead dispatched CIRT, who then shot two people.
Update: The Age, Dec 13, ‘Cops alter story on Inflation shooting in legal defence’. Not only were two shot, one of the victims was shot, tackled by multiple police, punched repeatedly, and tasered multiple times.
In 2011, then Police Commissioner Simon Overland announced the formation of the Public Order Response Team. The “definitely not a riot squad” consisted of forty-two officers. In the 2016 state budget, the Andrews government shelled out for new robocop armour and training and by March this year Public Order Response was home to 324 officers. The batons, body armour and pepper spray of the “Public Order Response Team” are now the face of Victoria Police at an increasingly wide array of otherwise peaceful public demonstrations.
In December 2016, the Andrews government announced the creation of a “New York-style” “high-tech monitoring hub”. Today the government announced we’re getting a “high-tech” “terrorism warning system”, with police controlled loud-speakers to go up across the CBD.
Officially Victoria Police do not spy on or seek to disrupt lawful critics of the government. The infamous Special Branch was abolished by Parliament in 1982, but its various substitutes continue. The Security Intelligence Group was busted spying on activists in 2008, and was in turn abolished in 2011. Nonetheless, Victoria Police’s Intelligence and Covert Support Command remains, and the modern descendants of Victoria’s political police continue to operate, and activists continue to report being doorknocked and approached.
The legal powers of these specialist police units are growing too. New laws banning masks within “designated areas” were adopted this year, the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Public Order) Act 2017 also includes powers for police to simply ban people from “designated areas” without them having committed any offense at all.
The original “designated areas” legislation, adopted in 2009 on the back of a “law and order” panic about knives on trains, has become an all-purpose piece of legislation for suspending civil rights during protests. Police now routinely “designate” areas where protests are likely in order to suspend an increasing array of civil rights (in particular those around searches).
This same cycle of security theatre gave us PSOs on train stations. These poorly trained, well armed, and bored mint-a-cops were rolled out across the train network in 2012. They now routinely intimidate commuters, start fights, and cost $80 million a year with little appreciable impact on crime at railway stations. The Andrews government loves PSOs so much they want to hire hundreds more of them to guard supermarkets. The dues alone are a windfall to the police association.
Growing police powers, expanding “specialist” forces, and a general increase in the size of Victoria Police are having consequences. At protests and demonstrations, ‘policing by consent’ has given way to the pepper spray and batons of ever present ‘robo-cops’. Young people, migrants, homeless persons and others now encounter the sheer joy that is PSO harassment across the public transport network. The police force increasingly claims the right to determine who is allowed to demonstration, express dissent, or appear in particular public spaces, and on what terms. The state government and Melbourne City Council (for example) routinely use the police to harass and move-on homeless people in the city, in all manner of areas, violence is substituted for effective social policy. And every increase in the size and powers of the police force further increases its weight as an institution, and flows on to buttress the political power of the Police Association.
The growing weight of policing bears down on migrant and Indigenous communities, it bears down on the young, particularly in working class areas, and it bears down on public dissent and protest.
More police, more powers, and more petty laws mean greater harassment, greater control, and greater criminalization. Unless this growth is challenged, the increasing size and power of the police force, and the corrupting influence of the Police Association in politics, will bear increasingly bitter fruit for all but the wealthiest in our society.