Police witless

Probably the most disturbing part is the word “informal”. Instead of going to a court, instead of getting a warrant, Victoria Police went directly to the Health Department and tried to access coronavirus check-in data.

Sensibly, the department refused. So did Services Victoria. The sly “informal” request – the pressure to share information – would undermine confidence in a system built to maintain public health.

In Western Australia, where police succeeded in accessing this health data, laws were rushed through to strengthen privacy protections. In Victoria, the Police minister has refused to do the same: “I think the idea of introducing legislation to prevent that occurring would lead to a poor public policy outcome.”

This is no real surprise. Victoria has been notable in making its response to coronavirus a police issue. More fines were issued in the state than anywhere else in the country. When public housing towers were locked down, it was police who marched in to them. This was a state that embraced curfews and set up a permit system for people on the streets after dark.

In Victoria, the police get what they want. Urged on by the conservative press, the government happily expands powers. Law and order wins elections. Private prisons are being built at an incredible rate.

If police want mandatory sentencing, they get mandatory sentencing. If they want dysfunctional bail laws, they get dysfunctional bail laws. If they want to make a white power sign at a protest, they get a reprimand no stronger than “extreme disappointment”.

Last year, pollsters detected a collapse in public trust for police officers. In Victoria, only 42 per cent of people rated police as “high” or “very high” for ethical standards or honesty. Three years earlier, that figure had been 76 per cent. Generously, researchers blamed the enforcement of coronavirus restrictions and the Lawyer X scandal.

A fairer reading might include the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps it would include more focus on the videos of police assaulting suspects and in one case a disability pensioner. Possibly it would include the former head of Victoria Police’s ethical standards unit posting racist and sexist slurs online.

Check-in data has been central to the containment of coronavirus. With the shambles of the vaccine rollout, and the failure of the government’s contact tracing app, it has been the most effective part of stopping the spread.

To risk the integrity of that system is extraordinary. It speaks to a curious fault in the Australian psyche: a fetish for police powers, for the punishment of people who are not us.

Maybe the loss of faith in police indicates that this is changing. If it does, politicians have a lot of catching up to do. They could start by ensuring that public health data is never accessed by police, or certainly never without a warrant.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 26, 2021 as "Police witless".

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