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Police accused of racial profiling over COVID fines

Victoria Police officers have been accused of racial profiling after a damning report showing people of non-Anglo appearance were disproportionately targeted for COVID fines during the pandemic.

Photo: AAP /Daniel Pockett

Photo: AAP /Daniel Pockett

Aboriginal, African and Middle Eastern people were up to four times more likely to be fined for COVID-19 breaches, when considering their share of the state’s population.

More than 37,000 fines were issued for COVID-related offences in 2020, with at least 28,000 including details of the person’s perceived racial appearance, according to data from Inner Melbourne Community Legal released on Tuesday.

More than 20 per cent were issued to people of African and Middle Eastern appearance, despite them only making up about five per cent of the Victorian population.

Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people accounted for nearly three per cent of all fines, yet make up just one per cent of the state’s population.

Melbourne suburbs with higher proportions of people from non-English speaking backgrounds also received more fines.

Lead researcher Tamar Hopkins alleged the data was evidence of racist policing.

“We found strong evidence that African/Middle Eastern-appearing people were more likely to be issued with a fine that required questioning than white people,” Dr Hopkins said.

“This difference in treatment provides evidence of racial profiling by the police.”

Various fines were issued including a $100 penalty for not wearing a mask, $2726 for failing to isolate and up to nearly $5000 for illegal gatherings.

Ilo Diaz from the Police Accountability Project, which is associated with Inner Melbourne Community Legal, called for all fines to be scrapped.

“We’re asking for all these fines to be waived,” Diaz said.

“More importantly, we know that when police are given extra powers and extra discretion, it’s racialised communities that get impacted the most … so we need a better accountability system for policing.”

The report has called for an independent complaints body to oversee police as part of its recommendations.

It follows an apology from Victoria’s top cop in May for racist practices within Victoria Police.

During the Yoorrook Justice Commission truth-telling inquiry, Chief Commissioner Shane Patton acknowledged the state’s criminal justice system had failed First Nations people over generations and committed to improving.

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Asked about Tuesday’s report, a spokeswoman for Victoria Police denied any wrongdoing.

“This is simply not true,” she said.

Police Association of Victoria secretary Wayne Gatt accused the community legal group of a smear campaign.

“We’re used to that, we’ve got thick skins and this sort of stuff has to become white noise for our members because they’re out there doing the right thing for the community,” he said.

Treaty and First Peoples Minister Gabrielle Williams said the issuing of fines was an operational matter for Victoria Police and if people have concerns they should use the enforcement review process.

A parliamentary inquiry previously found people in lower socio-economic areas were twice as likely to be fined for COVID breaches in 2020 than those in higher socio-economic areas.

Former police chief Ken Lay conceded racial profiling had occurred within the force and vowed to stamp it out in 2013 following a review.

A three year plan was launched at the time to improve police practices as part of a settlement with six African-Australian men, who argued they were stopped and searched by officers at alarming rates because of their race.

The plan included a trial receipt system where a record was to be kept of every person stopped by police and the reason why.

A Victorian Ombudsman inquiry in 2020 found the hard lockdown of nine North Melbourne and Flemington public housing towers violated human rights laws.

In legal submissions, experts said the heavy police presence traumatised residents, many from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and stoked racist community sentiment.

The Victorian government in May settled a $5 million class action brought by residents.

-with AAP

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