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Police and the people

Honi takes a look at both sides of the thin blue line and where the relationship between students and law enforcement went wrong.

Black and white image of cut out magazine letters spelling "Police and the People", plastered on a background of protestors, banners and posters with slogans against police brutality. Artwork by Robin Eames

 

“I’ve been arrested three times, had my head stomped on while I’ve been on the ground, I’ve been choked to the point of passing out, which I have PTSD from.” Ex-USyd student Tom Raue recounts his interactions with NSW Law Enforcement with the nonchalance of someone reciting their weekly grocery list.

Overwhelmed, I’m incapable of an empathetic response that doesn’t leave me sounding like an Oprah impersonator. To break the pregnant pause, I rifle through my notes and stutter another question. “So… um… how would you describe your relationship with the police?”

A smile twitches at Raue’s lips at the same time I realise the folly of my question. “I think we’ve covered that I don’t like police,” he says.

I’m confronted by Raue’s answer. It’s not that I’m scandalised by its ‘Up yours’ anti-establishment sentiment. I’m confronted because of how many people have expressed the same opinion. An anti law-enforcement stance is no longer confined to minorities of race, class, sexuality, or politics.

****

It would come as no surprise to those younger than 30 that as police powers have continued to increase, citizens’ rights have been consistently, and unashamedly, trodden on.

A saga of conservative parliamentary reform has multiplied complaints about police brutality with excessive use of tasers, deaths of indigenous youth in custody, and excessive punishment and enforcement of drug and protest related offences. Sniffer dogs have become a staple of our morning commutes to Redfern and our nights out anywhere from Laneway to World Bar with 2012 amendments to the Law Enforcement Powers and Responsibilities Act (LEPRA) allowing warrantless searches with sniffer dogs on public transport, music festivals, and the Kings Cross precinct.

2014 Amendments to the Liquor Act, disdainfully referred to as “lockout-laws”, have brought a whole new meaning to the term “fun-police”. For young activists, the 2016 Enclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Amendment Bill has constrained the right to protest. Penalties were made harsher with for protests with trespass increased from $550 to $5500. Now warrants for search and seizure, arrest and detention are cosmetic, not essential.

The consequence: disliking police has become a rite of passage for my generation.

****

I speak to Nicole Bramah, a Detective Senior Constable of the NSW Police. She offers to make me a coffee and compliments my activewear before talking me through the best way to prevent a person from blowing up a building. She does all of this without looking up from the instant Nespresso she is stirring. There is a point to her advice though: according to Bramah, dismantling a high-risk terrorist situation and de-escalating a Friday night altercation in the CBD are not too dissimilar.

Bramah insisted that, in both cases, communication is a police officer’s most important tool: “time and time again, I found if I spoke to a young offender the way I would speak to anyone else, I would get my best result… and I’m coming from a five foot two female perspective here.”

“What it comes down to is allowing a person their dignity.”

I get a sarcastic laugh when I ask another student, Charlotte, if the police have treated her with dignity.

She has just finished telling me how a couple of apathetic sniffs from a dog was lawful justification for her needing to squat naked in front of two strangers.

The 25-year old UTS Communications graduate, who now works as a media advisor in parliament, was separated from her friends, stripped of her belongings, and strip searched for non-existent drugs at the Secret Garden festival in February this year. Given the less than dignified procedure Charlotte endured, I expected the dog to have given an indication beyond any reasonable doubt. But when I ask this she laughs, “the dog was interested in me and sniffing me. It never sat down — something I understood to a be a positive indication”.

****

After refusing to confess to possessing drugs she didn’t have, Charlotte was led into a tent with two female officers. They didn’t explain the law that would allow them to proceed with the search regardless of whether she consented. She wasn’t told what to expect from the procedure she was about to undergo. Instead they instructed Charlotte to remove her shorts, which she did. She tells me that she paused in the hope that reason would prevail. The officers mechanically ordered her to “keep going.”

After a naked squat proved there were no drugs on her person, she had to ask to put her clothes back on and collect her belongings, now scattered across the tent floor. She was free to leave.

“They must have at least apologised to you? I mean, they made a mistake?” Intuition gives me the answer before Charlotte does.

“They definitely didn’t say sorry. They had no sense that they’d put me through any kind of humiliating or uncomfortable situation. They weren’t treating humans like humans.”

It doesn’t surprise me when Charlotte says how angry this made her; “If I’m about to have my rights violated, I want there to be a good reason.” But this isn’t a luxury we have in NSW. And the hypocrisy lies in how these mechanisms, designed to protect our lives, infringe upon our wellbeing.

“What is causing trauma is that kind of aggressive policing that is treating people like criminals when they haven’t done anything wrong,” Charlotte says. “If the government cared for the safety of young people they would pay for 20 pill stations instead of 20 drug dogs at festivals.”

The 2006 Ombudsmen sniffer dog report declared that the dogs are wrong 73% of the time. When they are right, the person they identify is usually carrying small amounts of cannabis. This process costs tax-payers nine million dollars a year. For an exorbitant fee, we’re hardly taking down Narcos style drug kingpins.

Jenny Leoung, Greens member for Newtown, supported this view in her attempt to repeal provisions of law pertaining to sniffer dogs in state parliament. Leoung branded the prevailing drug enforcement policy a failure and said “it’s not about effective drug control, it’s about police intimidation and harassment.” Despite the support she received from fellow Greens member David Shoebridge and Labor member Jo Haylen, little has been done in parliament since the amendment was raised in February last year.

Dogs are an omnipresent part of Redfern station, but are rarely up the road in the white collar, cocaine laced Martin Place. More and more young people see the police as a force used to purge, not protect; who would rather arrest someone for a couple of MDMA pills than make sure that those pills are safe in the first place.

Cases like Charlotte’s reinforce a growing concern held by the people I talk to: that they are suspects by virtue of age, music taste, and social activity.

****

It’s impossible to confine young people’s experiences with the po- lice to the mosh pit of a music festival, or late-night dance floor. I turn to exam – ine a practice synonymous with t h e idealistic, albeit stereotypical, University of Sydney student: activism.

Back in 2014, Tom Raue made headlines after being banned from USyd grounds for taking part in a protest against Julie Bishop at the University, and allegedly punching “a campus security officer in the face”. A year prior, the University of Sydney Union took Raue to court to dismiss him as their Vice-President after he leaked a confidential board report to Honi that showed collaboration between University management and police to break picket lines during the NTEU strike.

It’s safe to say that I didn’t think Raue’s view on the police would be optimistic. But I also didn’t expect to hear how he had passed out from being choked at the University of Sydney NTEU work-ers’ strikes in 2013. He tells me that he knew there would be blood when he saw the riot police line up and put their gloves on.

“The gloves are so they don’t hurt their hands when they handle you,” he says.

“Then what happened?”

“A policeman grabbed me by the neck. I couldn’t breathe.

They held me down for a minute. I was blacking out. I was afraid I was going to die.”

He takes a sip of his coke and I see the casual façade falter for a moment as he mutters, “I was pretty shaken up by that.”

He tells me about the next strike, when he stood at the back of the crowd, afraid to take a more active role. Police again intervened. Raue remembers telling the paramedics that his injuries were from being held down and kicked in the head by two officers. He was subsequently arrested.

“Why would you arrest someone who hasn’t committed a crime?” He asks me. It’s a question I can’t answer.

“Did you notify police of the protest beforehand?” I ask, remembering Nicole’s words about the best protests being those with a pre-existing relationship with law enforcement.

“Yes. I’ve been a police liaison and they break up legal protests all the time.”

****

Raue’s experience, although common, isn’t a definitive account.

Justine Landis-Hanley speaks highly of the police’s involvement when she was 2015 co-convenor of Reclaim the Night Sydney, a march against domestic violence.

“They met us at Victoria Park on the day of the protest, they were very friendly — talking us through how and when they would stop traffic along City Road and Parramatta Road to allow the march to proceed safely,” she tells me.

“I won’t lie though — there was a wariness to the two p o l i c e officers w h o c a m e a n d s p o k e to us, as if they were expecting us to yell at them or make erroneous demands. And I think that this, sadly, comes down to a misconception that activists are violent or irrational.

“Their loyalty and trust lies with authority figures — politicians, the Church, corporate institutions. I was covering a pro-choice protest and a pro-life rally last weekend, and there was a stark difference as to how law enforcement were interacting and treating the pro-choice marchers and the Church’s congregation. I think that it would be reductive to say that there aren’t activists who are aggressive, but assumptions play a large and dangerous role in policing.”

The existence of police aggression towards young people is undeniable, but the question of ‘why’ remains. I meet with Sarah. She’s an arts student at USyd, an activist, and the sister of two police officers. She tells me about praying an officer wouldn’t break her wrist when she was pinned to the ground during the Fisher Library protests last year. She tells me about the bruises she still has from being slammed into the plastic barriers so hard they shattered when she was escorted out of the library. But her voice becomes most distressed with what she tells me next.

When she told her brother she’d been thrown around by his colleagues, he said: “you deserved it and I would have done the same thing.” For Sarah, police clashing with youth can be reduced to a lack of empathy. She blames their gruelling training for this.

“If they’re struggling to complete a task they’re called ‘fucking pussies’ and told to harden up, but this takes away their compassion.” In many cases, emotional disassociation is positive. When talking to rape victims and examining dead bodies on a daily basis, emotionally switching off isn’t a choice; it’s a survival mechanism.

But this lack of emotional proximity becomes problematic when applied to situations universally. From the way her brothers talk, Sarah says that, to law enforcement, “[activists and dissenters] are the enemy: we are the people they need to protect society from, which is rubbish”.

But while everyone I talk to agrees that the police’s current interactions with our age group is damaging — not just to the individual or democratic culture, but to their future relationship with law enforcement — no one denied the vitality of their work.

 

When Bramah describes stories about preventing the death of hostages, stopping young women being trampled in a protest, and talking sixteen year olds off bridges, there is a pride in her voice that deserves to be there. But even Bramah admits that recent law reform makes mutual respect between citizen and officer difficult.

****

The implication is obvious: if your first interaction with police is an unnecessary shoving at a protest, being falsely accused of possessing drugs you don’t have, or being given directions to ‘move on’ after five hours of partying, your perception of the police isn’t going to be post-card pretty.

The consequence of this fractured relationship is significant. Some interviewees admitted they were in the wrong but the response was so disproportionate that it eclipsed this. When Sarah ignored move on directions at the protest she knew she was in the wrong, but she didn’t expect to be physically assaulted. When another student, John, got caught carrying two MDMA tablets, he said he knew it was stupid. But he didn’t expect to be prosecuted for drug dealing.

The cycle of aggression means that conflict and non-cooperation are more likely outcomes. Charlotte, Raue, Sarah, and John said that after their negative experiences, if an unsafe situation did arise, they would be reluctant or entirely too intimidated to go to the police for help.

As Sarah says, “It becomes about civilian versus police officer and it shouldn’t be like that.”

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