‘It’s the first thing that they look at’: claims of racial profiling levelled at Victoria police after Covid fines report | Victoria

When police pulled over Gunaikurnai woman Anna* in Melbourne’s south-east, she had just completed a compulsory medical screening.

The daily test, directed by Victoria’s Department of Families, Fairness and Housing, was part of the requirements for Anna to be reunited with her child, who was in the state’s child protection system at the time.

It was October 2020 and the state was in a stage-four lockdown that included a curfew and a travel limit. Police officers spotted Anna, who was travelling with her brother and his then-partner, who lived nearby, and began following their car before pulling the trio over.

All three were fined $1,652 for breaching the state’s stay-at-home orders.

Anna believes she and her family were racially profiled and police “targeted” them.

“I’ve always felt that as an Indigenous person, and with the police knowing that, it’s the first thing that they look at,” she tells Guardian Australia.

While she tried to explain to police her reasons for the trip, the officers were dismissive.

“They didn’t care too much to hear our side of the story. They said, ‘You’re all getting Covid fines today’.”

Anna chose to fight her fine and in March of this year, Victoria police withdrew the infringement. The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (Vals) – who represented Anna – argued she was travelling for a lawful reason that day. The service says Anna’s experience is reflective of racial discrimination by Victoria police.

A report by the Inner Melbourne Community Legal centre, released last week, found First Nations Victorians and ethnic minorities in the state were more likely to receive infringements for breaching lockdown rules. The report sparked calls from community leaders for the Covid fines to be withdrawn.

It found Indigenous people – who make up 1% of Victoria’s population – accounted for 30% of Covid fines in some regional parts of the state like Mildura. Overall, First Nations people accounted for nearly 3% of all fines.

People of African and Middle Eastern appearance were four times more likely to receive fines for breaching the state’s lockdown rules in 2020, when accounting for their share of the state’s population. Victoria police have rejected the allegation by the report’s lead researcher that officers targeted certain racial groups.

Melbourne suburbs with higher proportions of people from non-English speaking backgrounds also received more fines. More than 20% of Covid fines were issued to people of African and Middle Eastern appearance, despite people of this background only making up about 5% of the Victorian population.

Abdul Kareem, now 28, received a Covid fine in August 2020 while running errands outside the state’s curfew hours between 8pm to 5am, although he does not believe he was targeted by police.

Kareem had just left a laundromat in Reservoir, in Melbourne’s north, when he was approached by police at about 10pm. He received a fine shortly after in the mail.

He says he was not aware of the curfew – which was implemented earlier that month – as he had been relying on friends and family to stay informed about Covid restrictions.

“I thought I had a legitimate reason to leave home. I just wasn’t up-to-date with it,” he says.

Alex Walters, Vals’ principal managing lawyer for civil and human rights, says the Inner Melbourne Community Legal centre report, on which he sat on the steering group for, was “robust, concrete and comprehensive” evidence of racial profiling.

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“Police arguing that they don’t racially profile First Nations people is laughable,” he says.

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 the data.

Walters says decades worth of evidence has demonstrated that First Nations people experienced racial profiling and disproportionate interactions with police and the criminal justice system.

“This report shows the same thing in the issuing of Covid fines in Victoria,” he says.

“I don’t buy the argument that those communities were breaching [Covid rules] more. It’s pretty clear from the report that Covid enforcement activity was uneven and that certain communities bore the brunt of it.”

Walters questioned if Victoria police could maintain the legitimacy of Covid fines if “certain operations were so conditioned by racial profiling”.

Victoria police rejected the allegation that officers targeted specific ethnic groups for breaching Covid rules and said officers enforced the directions by the state’s chief health officer during Covid.

Last year, the New South Wales government was forced to withdraw about 33,000 Covid fines, totalling more than $30m, after conceding they were worded too vaguely. It followed test cases in the supreme court lodged by Redfern Legal Centre that raised serious concerns about their lawfulness. Guardian Australia understands the Victorian government has no plans for a widespread waiving of Covid fines.

The state premier, Daniel Andrews, last week said it was his expectation that the “law was applied equally to everybody, regardless of where you were born or your parents were born”.

The attorney general, Jaclyn Symes, told a recent public accounts and estimates committee budget estimates hearing that only one in 10 Covid fines had been paid in full. She said 50,150 Covid-19 fines had been issued, totalling more than $100m.

Covid fines were introduced for a variety of offences during the pandemic, ranging from $200 for not wearing a face covering, $1,652 for most breaches of stay-at-home orders and up to $4,957 for unlawful gatherings.

*Not her real name

Additional reporting: Benita Kolovos


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