Introduction by Croakey: New restrictions on people’s lives, while part of the public health response to COVID-19, have a significant effect on freedoms we normally take for granted, such as freedom of movement.
Because these new restrictions are legislated, they are also policed.
A new Melbourne-based website, COVID policing, has been established to monitor the impact of policing of COVID legislation and regulations. Here Jen Keene-McCann, one of the people behind the new site, explains.
Jennifer Keene-McCann writes:
In its first three weeks live, the website covidpolicing.org.au received 74 reports from Australians describing interactions with police regarding the emergency measures in place across the country. A collaborative project between legal and human rights advocacy organisations and academics, the website aims to monitor the impact of enforcing emergency COVID measures. Crowd-sourced and community-focused, the website has begun to get a picture of what life is like for Australians trying to ‘follow the rules’ in lockdown.
While the majority of accounts are from Victoria, the website has also received reports from New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland, and Western Australia. In the website’s weekly round-up, these reports are summarised to give a glimpse into whether, how and when increased police powers are being used.
Although too early to identify potential trends, these reports are indicating important, recurring themes. For example, interactions with police have left individuals largely confused because they thought they were abiding by emergency restrictions. Several reports discuss being stopped while out walking or exercising, and express similar sentiments as one individual did:
I felt we were treated unfairly … The fine states “three exercising nil boot camp” so if I was [at] a boot camp it’s fine to be together it just doesn’t make sense.”
This confusion is not surprising. In Victoria, our Stay at Home Directions leave considerable leeway in defining what constitutes, for example, ‘exercise.’
No doubt many police officers are as confused as members of the public – as evidenced by the fact that police in Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland have all announced or discussed review of infringement notices given in relation to violating COVID restrictions. This confusion will only increase as do numbers of reports heralding ‘lifting of the lockdown.’
This leeway in the Directions leaves to discretion whether and how behaviour is policed. Discretion itself isn’t a problem; but those who get to exercise discretion hold power. And the use of power, whether pandemic or no, must be monitored so that it is used responsibly and appropriately.
Concerningly, several early reports to covidpolicing.org.au stated interactions with the police left them feeling ‘intimidated’, ‘interrogated’, ‘embarrassed’ and ‘afraid’. This social and psychological impact is as potentially damaging as issuing a fine – a fine is challengeable under law; fear felt from an interaction with a public authority is not.
I was struck by a simple interaction regarding a takeaway coffee—a symbol of ‘normalcy’. Although observing social distancing, the individual providing the report was asked to move on. No fine was issued, but the moment unsettled her:
I said [to the officer] I thought a takeaway coffee was permitted. [The officer] said it was. Then she told me to get moving. She was nasty and forceful… I felt sad and hurt that I was spoken down to by the officer. Even more so as I was being nice to her. I am 64 and have never had anything like that happen in my life. I worry these new powers of aggressive behaviour towards the public will continue after the shutdown.”
This pandemic has shown in stark contrast the imbalance of power in our ‘normal way of life’.
For many Australians, interactions over Stay at Home orders will be the first time we think about how discretion is exercised and whether it’s exercised in our favour. For many Australians, this pandemic will be the first time they have ever had interactions with the power of the state.
Reports of broadly aggressive policing to covidpolicing.org.au include following a mother by car on her way to her son’s grave, telling a man with a severe acquired brain injury with his carer that he can’t ‘just be lounging around’, and police ‘stalking around’ outside an AirBnB where a woman’s stepfather stayed during cancer treatment.
Misuse of power well known to some
This misuse of power is nothing new to marginalised members of our communities. Prior to the pandemic, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians of colour experienced higher levels of policing than the general public. Reports of aggressive tactics and police intimidation of these communities aren’t rare.
Unsurprisingly, data indicates the patterns of targeted policing that occurred prior to the pandemic continues in pandemic policing today.
By providing a place for the public to record such interactions, the coalition behind covidpolicing.org.au can scrutinise when and how discretion is exercised.
Reports into the website allow the coalition to monitor whether the power provided by emergency measures is exercised in-line with the purpose of those measures. And as we eventually see these measures eased, the website will continue to provide a place to monitor whether policing tactics ease as well.
Jen Keene-McCann is a lawyer and academic based in Melbourne. She is a member of Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS), a coalition partner of covidpolicing.org.au