Report condemns police lockdown behaviour

Report condemns police lockdown behaviour
Rhonda Dredge

Lingering impacts of the lockdown are still being sorted by Inner Melbourne Community Legal, which has a shopfront on Queensberry St opposite North Melbourne Town Hall.

Ilo Diaz is an advocacy co-ordinator for the legal service and he deals with problems first-hand.

One is the economic impact of COVID fines that is still affecting low-income families in the area.

“We have a fine clinic and offer a free service to those with social and economic barriers,” Mr Diaz said, and there are still unpaid fines.

“We saw lots of COVID fines during that time [the lockdowns]. We still do. With the rise in the cost of living, people have to make tough decisions between putting food on the table and paying a COVID fine.”

IMCL is calling on the state government to waive all COVID fines, which ranged from $200 for not wearing a face mask to $1652 for a stay-at-home order because of racial profiling.

In a finely argued report, IMCL has sifted through the COVID figures and discovered what would have remained hidden.

People of African and Middle Eastern appearance received 20 per cent of the 37,000 fines issued in 2020 even though they represent just five per cent of the state population, making them four times more likely to have been fined.

“We want all COVID fines waived because the way they were enforced was disproportionate,” Mr Diaz said.

The researchers make a distinction between those who received a fine and those who were approached and fined after questioning.

The figures show that particular racialised groups were approached by police at a five per cent higher rate than white people. At some police stations up to 40 per cent of fines went to people of African and Middle Eastern appearance.

The report claims that the figures provide evidence of racial profiling and that transit police and highway squads were disproportionately fining people from African and Middle Eastern backgrounds.

In one case, protective services officers passed eight people on a train platform in West Melbourne to focus their questioning on two African teenage women to explore whether they had committed a COVID offence.

They discovered that one of the teenagers was outside her five-kilometre radius. They arrested her and placed her in a cell as she’d previously had fines. “She felt racially profiled”, the report said.

The local government area of Melbourne was the most affected, with people of non-English speaking background almost twice as likely to be fined than those in other areas.

For each increase in proportion of people who speak a language other than English the rate of fine increased by 19 per cent in the Melbourne LGA. On a state-wide basis this figure was 11 per cent.

Mr Diaz said the problem of racial profiling persists in the area. “My role in the community is helping people impacted by high levels of policing. We figure out a legal solution. Our catchment area includes the North Melbourne, Carlton, Flemington, and Kensington towers.”

Mr Diaz has been helping people fill out forms for the recent $5 million settlement by the state government over the excessive use of force during the hard lockdown when 500 police converged on the towers in July 2020.

“I spoke to one youth who has been stopped 20 times in the last three months going to and from school. An African boy. That’s common,” Mr Diaz said.

 

Twenty times in the last three months. That’s what it looks like. They don’t want to speak out. All he wants to do is go to school and back without being hassled by the police.

 

The report Policing COVID-19 in Victoria: Exploring the Impact of Perceived Race in the Issuing of COVID-19 Fines During 2020 was released last month. It recommends that a police ombudsman be appointed.

A Victorian Government spokesperson said public health directives played an important role in keeping Victorians safe and stopping the spread during the pandemic.

“Infringements issued for breaching public health orders do not expire,” the spokesperson said.

“We have many flexible options available for those experiencing disadvantage or with special circumstances to deal with their fine, and we encourage people with outstanding fines to contact Fines Victoria.”

The COVID fines concession scheme began last August and allows eligible people such as pensioners, health care card holders, asylum seekers and veterans who received a fine for breaching pandemic health orders to apply to Fines Victoria to have it reduced.

To contact Fines Victoria call (03) 9200 8111 or online at online.fines.vic.gov.au

 

Caption: Ilo Diaz outside his Queensberry St office.

John Buncle

John Buncle

February 14th, 2024 - Felicity Jack
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