The debate and allegations of police bias in the management of demonstrations have again been raised.
Bias concerns have indeed been more frequent and strident over recent years, and central to the community angst is the reported different responses to different causes.
The unavoidable comparisons of the police response are drawn between pre-COVID, Black Lives Matter (BLM), COVID Demonstrations, Pro Woman’s Rights and more recently, pro-Palestinian/Hamas demonstrations.
Police acting as spectators to the BLM demonstration, as opposed to Rubber Bullets and O/C Spray against COVID Demonstrators, a scenario VicPol will not be able to move away from for many years, if ever.
Hence, the CAA’s position on water cannons which are at least consistent.
Now, the issue relates to the police response to the pro-Palestine/Hamas anti-Jewish demonstrations.
The first principle of Policing demonstrations is consistency so that an allegation of bias cannot be levelled at the police; irrespective of the cause, people are exercising their right to assembly and free speech.
It is understandable that many in the community have doubts and feel Victoria police show bias, influenced by the subject matter of the demonstrations.
These latest demonstrations could become more problematic and facilitate anarchy by extremists hijacking the demonstrator’s actions from either side of the debate. A lack of Police action toward demonstrators who are breaking the law is a major cause of violence escalating because the behaviour is unchecked.
What has occurred seems to be inconsistency in applying the law as it stands. This inconsistency implies that the police policy moves with the subject matter of the demonstration, hence the allegations of bias.
It was widely reported that a Senior Police spokesperson said, “Protesters could not be stopped from unfurling hateful banners and performing anti-Semitic rallying cries”.
But there are specific laws to deal with these matters.
In Victoria, it is against the law to vilify a person or group of people in public because of their race or religion. Vilification is behaviour that ‘incites or encourages hatred, serious contempt, revulsion or severe ridicule’ for a person or group of people because of their race and/or religion.
It is also against the law to behave in public in a way that is racially offensive or abusive to a person or group of people because of their race, colour, nationality or ethnic origin
It is, therefore, not a question as to whether the perpetrators, and there were many exposed by news services, have committed Vilification in breach of the Law, it is only their individual guilt or innocence that is the question, necessarily determined by a Court, not the bias of individuals within VicPol.
That the crime has been committed is beyond doubt.
Another statement attributed in the media to the Senior Officer was,
“Police are aware of recent chants and banners at these rallies, and while they might be offensive to ‘some’, unfortunately, they do not always constitute a criminal offence.”
So, the police pick and choose the ‘some’.
That is bias and not police exercising discretion, which individual Police have the power to do.
The further claim that “Police can only act within the confines of the law” is a truism. However, it implies that the actions we see are within the confines of the law – a highly debatable proposition because, equally, the police have an obligation to enforce the law. There are a number of potential offences that the Police can take action against for those breaching them, which in part supports the politician’s views that police have adequate powers.
Offences regularly committed by demonstrators that are not prosecuted,
Obstruction, Trespass, Unlawful assembly, Anti-mask laws, Offensive behaviour, Besetting, Offences against emergency workers, Violent disorder, Affray or property damage.
We accept that at times, for operational expediency, some minor offences should be overlooked (exercising police discretion); however, when demonstrations occur without any arrests and blatant offences are being committed, beamed into our living rooms on the nightly news, the authority of the State and the Police is undermined as is the confidence of the community, something from a policing perspective that is essential for the overall effective policing function.
That some perpetrators are prosecuted post-event is not a disincentive for participants where an arrest during the demonstration is. The lack of arrests can promote an attitude that police are weak and ineffectual, the deterrent effect is lost, and more social unrest is guaranteed.
While weasel words to attempt to justify police inaction and or bias may placate a minority, the vast majority of the community sees through the spin.
Fair, impartial and effective policing without fear or favour is an underlying foundation principle of policing.