Three recent incidents of police violence have led to four Victorian police officers being suspended. A number of other complaints are currently being investigated by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC).
In the first incident, officers were caught on camera punching, beating and dousing a disability pensioner in capsicum spray after his therapist contacted the police with concerns about his wellbeing. The officers filmed part of the incident in an attempt to humiliate the man who was clearly suffering from mental health issues.
This story would have most likely gone untold if the entire scene was not captured on the man’s home CCTV camera.
In another incident an officer slammed a prisoner’s head into a cell door knocking the man out cold. Footage also emerged of an officer kicking and stomping on a man while he was handcuffed and in police custody.
Police Minister Lisa Neville responded by saying that there was “a pretty good ratio” of daily interactions between police and the public that don’t generate complaints. She claimed that recent allegations of police brutality were not demonstrative of a cultural problem within the force. No doubt the many victims of police violence and harassment would think otherwise.
While these three incidents have made the headlines, many more have gone unreported. A number of victims of police violence have said that making complaints has been near impossible and many of those who have decided to make reports have suffered bullying and harassment by police officers leading to them dropping their complaint.
There is a clear systemic problem with how complaints about police officers are investigated. From this flows a situation where many officers feel that they can act with impunity. A major problem is that complaints about police are usually investigated by other police. This often means that they are known to each other.
In 2016, after an investigation by IBAC, police were urged to overhaul their internal complaints system after it was found that police investigators had a poor record of seeking out all the witnesses, searching for CCTV and properly looking into and responding to complaints.
The total lack of integrity has resulted in officers, who are clearly repeat perpetrators of violence, being exonerated.
Since this investigation, and following subsequent promises to improve the complaints system, the officer in charge of Victoria Police’s ethical standards body, Assistant Commissioner Brett Guerin, was himself forced to quit in disgrace.
This was after it was discovered that Guerin was using an online alias to post comments on social media spouting racism and encouraging violence against Africans.
Why do so many officers engage in acts of violence, and how has such a poor culture developed? This is not a question of one particular force being corrupt – we see the same issues in police forces globally.
The behaviour of police officers reflects the role that the force plays in society. While we are told they exist to “protect and serve” us all, the truth is that their main focus is protecting and serving the rich and powerful.
Historically the police force was introduced to protect the interests of the property owning and business class, and they continue in this role today.
That the system is stacked in favour of the rich is clear. How else can you explain the many thousands of ordinary people in jail for unpaid parking fines while bankers found to have swindled millions walk free?
Any police force that serves the rich minority of the population will inevitably tend to treat the majority with contempt, especially those who have fallen through society’s cracks. This is what explains the police’s harsh attitudes towards Aboriginal people, youth, the homeless, people committing petty crimes and the mentally ill.
Socialists call for the police to be put under community control so that their priorities can be decided upon democratically.
We demand that investigations into the improper conduct of officers be carried out by elected members of the community, independent of the police force. And that all of those found guilty are immediately sacked without compensation and charged. All victims of police violence should be fully compensated.
While these reforms would help alleviate some of the problems, the only real way to deal with these issues is to change the way society is run. If society’s wealth was collectively owned and controlled, the need for a repressive apparatus like the police would be greatly diminished.
By Amy Neve