Catching the cops
Few people in Australia tune into NITV, a state-funded indigenous TV channel. On typical days it receives just 0.1 per cent of ratings nationally. But on 9 May there was a sudden spike. NITV had just broadcast a video clip filmed with a cell phone of a police car in Perth deliberately mowing down an Aboriginal teenager and causing him to have a seizure. His crime? Someone had reported ‘suspicious activity’ in the area.
The teenager was treated in hospital for his injuries, while the police officer involved has been stood down and is under internal investigation.
A better-than-usual ending? Only because a bystander had filmed the incident and shared it with the right people, says George Newhouse of the National Justice Project, a non-profit legal service in Sydney. ‘We are totally at a loss to understand how or why this incident took place. And if it was not on film, I am not sure you would be seeing the intense investigation that is currently under way,’ he says.
The incident inspired Newhouse and his colleagues to create Copwatch, a new app that empowers people, particularly young Aboriginals with limited resources, to protect themselves against police misconduct.
‘One of the common complaints we hear from kids is police misleading them about their rights to film – they do have the right,’ he says. ‘So we show them how to film safely, how to de-escalate a situation and how to protect what they’ve captured as evidence by saving it to the Cloud.’
The power of video evidence used against police misconduct can be traced back to 1991 when Rodney King, an African American, was savagely beaten by Los Angeles police officers for evading arrest. Footage of the incident sparked riots in LA and saw two of the police officers involved sentenced. King eventually received a $3.8-million settlement from the City of Los Angeles.
Today the ease with which bystanders can record videos of police misconduct and share them on social media has played a key role in the Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2015, 800 people protested in McKinney, Texas, after a video was released showing a police officer pinning an African-American girl to the ground with his knees at a pool party.
A year later, protests broke out nation-wide after footage was posted on Facebook of a Minnesota police officer fatally shooting African-American Philando Castile after he was pulled over in his car.
The officer who shot Castile was acquitted after a jury found the prosecutor had not met the burden of evidence for a conviction. But last December, a North Charleston police officer was sentenced to 20 years for fatally shooting Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American man. Video of the policeman shooting repeatedly from the rear, while Scott tried to run and planting evidence near the body significantly influenced the verdict.
Apps that combine video and other functions to make it easier and safer to film police first emerged in 2012 in the US. The first, Mobile Justice, is a free app created by the American Civil Liberties Union that allows users to film police covertly by pushing a button on their smartphone’s frame; tapping the screen stops the filming.
In 2014, Toronto-based author and entrepreneur Darren Baptiste launched Cop Watch (no relation to Australia’s Copwatch), an app that automatically uploads video footage to YouTube to prevent police from deleting evidence.
‘I don’t think Cop Watch has been used in a landmark case in Canada but I know it’s had an impact. I’ve been investigated by various police forces because of it,’ Baptiste says. ‘Anyone who installs Cop Watch or another version in this class of software has taken a step forward in defending their rights.’
It’s no surprise that video interventions are also becoming important in Australia. With an imprisonment rate of 2,253 per 100,000 people – 23 per cent higher than for African Americans in the US – indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated people on the planet.
‘Every Aboriginal I know has had contact with police, and that contact is mostly enquiries based on suspicion of criminal activity,’ says Des Jones, chair of the Murdi Paaki Regional Housing Corporation in New South Wales and Copwatch advocate.
‘During the school holidays my grandkids were hanging outside some shops and just because they are Aboriginal, someone perceived them as a threat and the police were called. They were questioned and told to move on; [they were] lied to, told that they were on private property,’ he adds.
‘I’ve also been questioned for no reason and when I ask [the police] why they are harassing me, they lie and say they don’t have to respond. And that’s nothing compared to the other stuff that goes on – gross human rights violations on a wholesale level. Go to YouTube and take a look at the videos.’
In one video uploaded last year, a police officer is seen throwing two Aboriginal women to the ground for swearing at him during a heated exchange. Jones says the incident is typical. ‘I know there are some reasonable police on the force but most of them are indoctrinated to believe we are all criminals,’ he says. ‘There is no trust between Aboriginals and the cops – and the gulf is widening.’
In July, Western Australian Police Commissioner Chris Dawson recognized the ‘significant role’ police played in traumatizing Aboriginals in the past. He also announced body cameras would be required for all officers in the state.
But when asked to comment on ongoing police harassment, a Western Australian Police Force spokesperson refused to comment, describing the allegations as ‘broad and subjective’. Spokespeople for the police forces in the states of Queensland and New South Wales also refused to comment, but said people who feel aggrieved by police can file complaints.
Culture of impunity
In 2015, an enquiry by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) in the state of Victoria found fewer than 10 per cent of complaints to regional police stations were upheld. When the allegations involved police brutality, the figure dropped to four per cent. A year later, IBAC recommended sweeping reform of the complaints system.
Jeremy King, a lawyer in Melbourne specializing in police misconduct who gave evidence at the enquiry, says nothing has changed. ‘There is a culture of impunity within the police force in Victoria and that stems from the complaint system being pretty poor,’ he says. ‘Indigenous Australians have particular issues and are over-represented in police misconduct cases, but it’s an issue that impacts people from all walks of life.’
One of King’s current clients is John, an elderly disabled white man, who was dragged out of his home by six police officers, beaten repeatedly with batons, and had capsicum spray and a water hose inflicted upon him as they filmed with their cell phones, made jokes and laughed. The police never released their videos but the incident was captured by a security camera John had installed in his home – footage that will be presented as evidence in court. ‘This case highlights the power of video footage and how it can be used as a tool for accountability,’ says King.
Newhouse shared the same message last month when he launched Copwatch with Des Jones in the New South Wales town of Dubbo. There, Aboriginal youths are stopped and searched on the slightest suspicion and arrests have increased by 40 per cent under a new hard-line policing model. But Newhouse also warned that people who film police need to be aware of legal pitfalls.
‘We encourage kids to be cautious about uploading video to social media because they could be capturing their friends or family members committing a crime,’ he says. ‘We teach them not to upload anything until they’ve spoken about it with an elder.’
Jones says he has received requests to come and speak about Copwatch in towns in distant Western Australia and far north Queensland where incarceration rates for Indigenous Australians are off the chart. ‘Copwatch is a response to an underlying issue that Aboriginal people have faced since day one,’ he says. ‘But now with this new technology, we declare zero tolerance for unlawful policing in Australia.’
Ian Lloyd Neubauer is a Sydney-based freelance journalist and photojournalist with a decade’s experience of working as a visiting reporter in Papua New Guinea for Time, Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, The Diplomat and The Australian Financial Review, among others.