Riding through the inner Melbourne suburb of Footscray, the three African-Australian youths seated in the back of the bus express no love for the police. They reel off stories of unjust arrests and racial taunts leveled by officers who patrol their neighbourhoods.
“When they beat me, they call me a black c---,” volunteers Dang through pursed lips.
But it is a cry that falls on unsympathetic ears.
An elderly African-Australian man, Kuloba, turns and lectures his fellow travelers. “In Kenya and Uganda the police are bad,” he explains. “In Australia, the police are good. The police are not allowed to bash you. If the police do anything bad, sue. Go to Flemington and the lady will do that.”
“The lady” is Tamar Hopkins, the principal solicitor at the Flemington-Kensington Community Legal Centre. She works with a small team in an old child welfare building near the Kensington railway line.
For the past six years, the centre has been representing six African-Australians in a civil case against the Victoria Police. The men claimed they were being targeted by police between 2005 and 2009 because of their race.
In an out-of-court settlement struck in February, Victoria Police agreed to a public review of training and field contact practices. As part of that review, police have started taking community input, an event which Ms Hopkins describes as “historic”.
The public are being invited to make submissions over the next two months, with a formal police response required by December 31. It’s the most high-profile response yet from Victoria Police in the face of charges of racial profiling.
Acting Deputy Commissioner Andrew Crisp is broadly confident about police behaviour, but concedes that police “haven’t been as good as we could be in relation to listening to the community”.
He says police command is keen to hear what the community has to say.
Despite a string of recent racist incidents that have embroiled the force, Mr Crisp remains adamant: “We do not concede or accept that as an organisation we actually are involved in racial profiling.”
Anthony Kelly, the legal centre’s executive officer, agrees there is no official policy, but he still has concerns. “The cops out there on the street at 10 o’clock at night are very different from the ones in the Victoria police bureaucracy,” says Mr Kelly. “We recognise this through the reports of our clients being told to ‘get back to Africa’, being racially abused when they are stopped and searched, and physically assaulted.” (Click on the image below to see a history of Victoria Police and race relations.)
When examining Victoria Police’s own data, University of Melbourne Professor Ian Gordon found that young African men in the Flemington and North Melbourne area were 2.5 times more likely to be stopped by police than other groups, despite representing a lower crime rate.
Numerous community members have ideas for ways to solve this issue. Ross Barnett, director of the Ethnic Communities' Council of Victoria, is pessimistic and believes police are denying problems. He agrees that new cadets get trained in cultural awareness, but “30 years later they’ve never had any refresher or any other exposure to that sort of training”.
The council plans to tell the inquiry that “culturally appropriate policing” should be part of the assessment necessary for police to progress up the ranks. By definition, insensitive officers should not be promoted.
Daniel Haile-Michael, one of the plaintiffs in the Federal Court action is studying for his civil engineering exams at Victoria University. But he takes time to promote the cause that has been dominating his life for six years.
Mr Haile-Michael wants to make sure that the community consultation is accessible. His goal is to change police training so that it portrays the African-Australian community in a positive light.
“Racism doesn’t start with the Victoria Police,” he says. “It’s a worldwide — not even a country-wide — issue.”
His legal advisers agree. “Police forces around the world are recognising slowly that there is a disproportionality, there’s a bias, in the way they stop and search people,” says Mr Kelly. In the United Kingdom, police are now issuing “stop and search” receipts that explain why someone has been stopped. Since introducing the receipts, racial profiling has decreased and police are reporting that their searches are more efficient. Mr Kelly wants Victoria Police to adopt the same practice.
Acting Deputy Commissioner Crisp, who oversees policing in Melbourne's north-western suburbs, is clear that he expects members of his police force to be upholding human rights. “For us, really, the starting point is about treating people with dignity and respect,” he says. “It’s a challenge, it really is, and we have to keep working [at it].”
(Click on the red dots in the map below to learn how other countries are dealing with policing and race.)
Back on the bus, Dang and his friends are cynical about the impact of community input. “Money makes the world go round, the cops won't listen to us,” one of the group calls out.
But Mr Crisp disagrees. “We’re actually looking forward to hearing what the community has to tell us,” he says, “It’s about all our communities living and working harmoniously together.”
The community consultation period will remain open through July 31, 2013.
* All members of the public can make submissions. Submissions can be by email or post, and can include audio or video. Details can be found on the Victoria Police website.