Recent police misconduct reveals lack of mental health services

By Peter Thrupp

Distressing footage recorded from a CCTV camera in 2017 was recently released and showed six Victorian police officers assaulting and violently arresting a disability pensioner. The man, wanting only to be identified as John, was visited by police after his psychologist called triple zero, concerned about his mental health. John explained to the six police officers who turned up that he was going through withdrawals from pain medication and begged them to go away so that he could recover.

Police threatened to break down his front door and attempted to coax John outside. When John emerged to plead with the officers, police claim that he approached them with two closed fists. The footage shows that John had both his hands open as he tried to fend off an officer armed with capsicum spray, clearly aiming it to use on John as he came out of the house.

The police dragged John to the ground. An officer was seen beating his legs with a baton as he was restrained. He was punched, a boot was placed on his head and an officer used capsicum spray again on John, this time at close range. One of the officers taunted John, saying, “You like that? Smells good doesn’t it?” as he sprayed him directly in the eyes.

Multiple police officers restrained John who was already in a weakened state from painkiller withdrawals. John was prescribed the medication after recently undergoing back surgery. John can be heard crying, “Oh, my back! My back!” as the officers begin to handcuff him.

While John is sitting on the ground, his arms restrained behind his back, an officer then uses a nearby garden hose on a high-pressure setting to spray John directly in the eyes. John later said that he felt as if he was going to drown. This is in direct contrast to the paramedic who treated him later by pouring water onto his face and eyes.

At one point, whilst John is being sprayed with water, an officer pulls out his phone to film the incident. As the officer with the hose is seen moving to put the hose away, his colleague directs him to spray him one more time, presumably to catch it on camera. They were unaware at the time that the entire incident was being filmed by a CCTV camera that John had installed after being burgled.

As Andrew Stafford, a freelance journalist pointed out in a tweet:

Melbourne lawyer, Jeremy King commented on the incident by stating that what was unusual about the case was not the police’s conduct, rather that it was captured on film. King contributed to a parliamentary inquiry into the oversight of police corruption and misconduct earlier this year. He not only stated that his office routinely receives up to three calls a day relating to police misdeeds, but that the complaint process set up by Victorian Police only accepts 9 per cent of complaints as being proven. That number drops to 4 per cent when clients allege they have been assaulted by police.

In relation to John’s case, not only did none of the officers acknowledge any problems with their colleagues’ conduct during their reports, but Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius only suspended three of the officers involved on April 6th, presumably in response to the public outcry that resulted after the footage was released. According to the Guardian, Cornelius said he was unsure if the incident would have been investigated if not for the CCTV footage.

The culture around police investigation into misconduct has also been criticised by former police officers. Rick Flori, a former Gold Coast police officer, recently faced trial after releasing footage of the violent arrest of an Indigenous man in 2012. Flori was charged with misconduct but was found not guilty after a six-day trial. Flori noted that the officer who led the investigation, which resulted in his being charged, was now working at the QLD Crime and Corruption Commission which investigates allegations of police misconduct. He stated:
“The idea of being open and honest, as they continually quote, the checks and balance and all this openness and honesty, is not what they do… It’s all verbal rhetoric.”

These people suffer through constant internal battles that disrupt their lives and their ability to function within them. On top of this, they also suffer stigma from a society that is all too ready to dismiss their problems and experiences.

In relation to mental illness, statistics obtained by NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge through the Government Information Public Access Act (GIPAA) revealed that more than half of the people shot dead by NSW Police over the past 20 years were mentally ill.

Whilst a mandatory day of training in how to respond to people with a mental health condition has been introduced by NSW police, some researchers have been critical of the focus on training as a solution. Without addressing the lack of infrastructure in place to assist those with mental illness, especially those in a crisis situation, it’s unlikely to have any significant impact in reducing police violence towards mentally ill people.

Roughly one in five Australians will experience mental illness in any given year. If you are not personally affected by mental illness, then there is a good chance you know someone who is. These people suffer through constant internal battles that disrupt their lives and their ability to function within them. On top of this, they also suffer stigma from a society that is all too ready to dismiss their problems and experiences.

A large part of the reason why John’s case is being taken seriously is because there was video evidence of his assault. Imagine a scenario where there was no footage and it was the word of one mentally ill person against six police officers. How readily would people have accepted that John provoked the attack and that all the force used against him was acceptable? How often does this happen without anyone recording it? These are questions that should weigh heavily on all our minds.