Editorial
Brutal force

The first punch lands after he is on the ground. His body is obscured by the men on top of him, but it appears to connect with the back of his head. The punches come in a flurry now, too many to count. There is a pause and then the police officer starts again. He changes arms. He stands so he can kick the man in the face.

Handcuffs are fitted. The man is black and shirtless. The officer takes a tool from his belt and uses it to bludgeon the man’s head. He fits the tool back to his belt, without looking, as if this is normal. The camera catches him smiling. Standing again, he stomps on the man’s head.

Later, the man kicks at him. The police officer throws him to the ground, kneels on his chest, and starts choking him. He lifts the man’s body then drops it, his victim’s head cracking against the floor.

Community lawyers have begun encouraging people to share footage such as this on social media. They don’t trust the police to investigate themselves.

“A complaint system dealing with police brutality needs to be sufficiently robust and able to withstand scrutiny and you can’t say that about the way the current police accountability mechanisms work,” says Denis Nelthorpe, the chief executive at West Justice in Werribee, a district in outer Melbourne.

“People are being forced to find other ways to hold the powerful to account and one way to do that with great impact is to share footage in the community and let them judge that accordingly.”

Other footage emerged this week, of a disability pensioner being beaten on the ground by six police officers. They used batons on his legs and back, fired pepper spray into his eyes. “You like that?” one of them taunts. “Smells good, doesn’t it?”

Once handcuffed, the man is sprayed in the face with a hose. One of the police officers takes out a phone camera and his colleague performs for it, spraying the man again. They had been called to check his mental health.

“Our officers make mistakes like anyone else,” a statement from Victoria Police said. “And when that happens, we seek to learn from them.”

There are calls now for a royal commission. One should be held. The apparent ordinariness of this violence is an indictment on police.

This is the violence of a force whose own head of professional standards mourns the abolition of the lash. “The jigaboo runs riot and out of control,” then assistant commissioner Brett Guerin wrote online, before resigning in disgrace last month. “The ’boo needs the lash. The ’boo wants the lash. Deep, deep down the ’boo knows the lash provides the governance and stability.”

This is the violence of a force urged on by Peter Dutton and the Murdoch press, by an ex-cop and an amoral organisation. It is the violence of a force whose work has been politicised by the confection of a race crisis.

This is the violence of a force detached from reality – the detachment that imagines a city scared to go to dinner, as Dutton says Melbourne is, or overrun by gangs, as the Murdoch tabloids claim.

In both sets of footage, it is the smiles of the officers that are most terrifying. They are the smiles of people who know they will not be challenged, who know that the politics of this country encourages their excesses.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 7, 2018 as "Brutal force". Subscribe here.

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