A Red Flag feature covering the origins of the Australian police, racism in the force, law and order politics and the increasingly violent nature of policing under neoliberalism.

What are the police for? By Andrew Cheeseman

If you are an avid watcher of all the TV crime shows like CSI, you could be forgiven for believing that a thin blue line is the only thing standing between society and hordes of rampaging crystal meth addicts dumping dead bodies on your door.

The reality of policing is very different.

Protecting ordinary people from interpersonal violence is not, and has never been, the reason that governments spend so much money on a police force. After all, in Australia workplace accidents and workplace illnesses cause more than 10 times the deaths that interpersonal violence causes.

Yet Worksafe does not have anywhere near the independence, powers or funding of the police force. And police officers are far, far more likely to carry out serious acts of violence than civilians: while police make up approximately 0.23 percent of the population, they are responsible for 11 percent of non-suicide firearm deaths in Australia.

But if they aren’t there to keep people safe, what are they for?

The largest mobilisations of police since the end of World War 2 have all been to suppress protests. Up to 4,000 police were mobilised to try to disperse the S11 anti-corporate blockade of a ruling class forum in Melbourne in September 2000.

Even more – an estimated 4,500 – were mobilised to protect George W. Bush and other war criminal world leaders at the 2007 APEC forum in Sydney. To facilitate the forum, the police locked down over half of the Sydney CBD, disrupting virtually every major road.

More recently, more than 900 Victoria Police officers were mobilised to Melbourne’s Myer Emporium construction site last year to break up a union protest against Grocon’s undermining of safety standards.

In an excellent book Crime, Class and Corruption: Politics of the Police, British socialist Audrey Farrell compared three sets of statistics – crime statistics, police numbers and the level of protests. Her findings were stark: while there is a strong correlation between police numbers and protests, there was no correlation at all between crime rates and police numbers.

Police officers spend most of their time enforcing property laws that keep the poor poor – prosecuting people for shoplifting or public transport fare evasion, or even harassing homeless people for sleeping in the street. This builds a distrust of and contempt for ordinary people, which makes police more reliable at policing protests.

Even when it comes to crimes against property, the police treat theft from workers very differently to theft from employers. If $200 is missing from the till at a retail store, police will review surveillance footage to try to identify which employee stole it and then the law will come down on them like a ton of bricks.

If an employee is illegally underpaid $200 by their employer, however, police will do nothing. In the rare instance where the employer is prosecuted by a body other than the police, at most they will pay a small fine.

I don’t often agree with Ken Lay, Victoria Police chief commissioner, but he summed up the thuggish nature of the police in March. At the height of a moral panic about “thuggish bikie gangs”, he said.

“We have a message to any bikie gang members who want to be involved in nightclub security. We have a gang too – it is called the Victoria Police. And I’ll give you a tip. Our gang is bigger than your gang.”

Law and order politics, by Louise O’Shea

Law and order politics is an inescapable and pernicious feature of the Australian political landscape. Their increasing prominence has paralleled the neoliberal offensive unleashed in the 1970s and continued under subsequent governments of all political stripes.

Law and order works with neoliberalism in a number of ways.

It criminalises those who are the main victims of these government policies – the unemployed, youth, those marginalised and discriminated against, as well as individuals and groups most dependent on the social services decimated by cuts and privatisation.

Where the state should be providing education, health care and economic support to workers and the poor, it instead criminalises and incarcerates them. The logical end of this can be seen in its most extreme form in the US, where young Black men are more likely to be checked into prison than to enrol in university.

In Australia, it is reflected in the fact that the suburbs most associated in the mass media with crime and delinquent youth, such as Bankstown in western Sydney, also tend to have a youth unemployment rate well above the national average.

Law and order also provides a convenient scapegoat for governments looking to blame others for the social decay they are responsible for. Crime and criminal elements are frequently presented as the cause of social breakdown, and used as a focus for mass anger and insecurity, rather than the government policies that contribute to unemployment, poverty, drug use and violence.

Racist hostility to particular ethnic or racial groups almost always accompanies such scapegoating. University of Technology Sydney academic Jock Collins describes how association with crime has been a key way in which various waves of immigrant groups have been demonised historically:

“The 1950s and 1960s were dominated by immigration of Greeks and Italians, and these groups were soon linked to crime in Australia. The 1970s also saw the ‘Greek conspiracy case’ over alleged Medibank fraud by Greek doctors …

“The now defunct weekly, the National Times, reported in 1978 on the drug trade involving Calabrian Italians, as well as Lebanese, Chinese and Turkish drug traffickers. The emergence of Asian immigrants in large numbers in the mid-1970s … was accompanied by a fear of Asian crime, particularly associated with the Triads.”

Today, the emphasis is most likely to be on Lebanese, Muslim or African youth.

Nothing typifies this trend quite like the former Carr Labor government in NSW, which came to power in 1995. Racist tub-thumping about Lebanese youth was the pretence under which prisoner numbers increased from 6,000 to 9,000 in Carr’s NSW, and prison spending skyrocketed from $330 million to $670 million.

It also brought the introduction of “standard minimum sentences” (in reality a form of mandatory sentencing) for relatively minor crimes, the establishment of for-profit private prisons, increased spending and more powers for police and pressure towards longer prison sentences.

At the same time, Carr’s “General Government Debt Elimination Act” involved massive cuts to spending on hospitals and transport, and the privatisation of numerous public facilities and assets.

The Carr government is not alone. Whether it’s mandatory sentencing in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, ethnic “gangs” in Sydney or Melbourne, or lawless bikies in South Australia, law and order is a persistent feature of state and federal politics.

The consequences for those incarcerated, victimised and racially vilified as a result of these policies is nothing short of a human rights abuse.

These are the real crimes, carried out by governments and the powerful interests who back them, that we should be uniting against.

The armed gangs in blue, by Roz Ward

Ali Antoni El Hafiane, a young unarmed man, was shot dead by police in Sydney in 2010. Speaking at a media conference after a coroner found the officers responsible to be “very foolhardy”, Ali’s mother Mary choked back tears. “Nothing’s going to bring my son back, his bed’s still empty, the house is still empty. It doesn’t matter what they say or what they do.”

Last year public outrage and protest erupted after police officers shot at unarmed teenagers six times as they drove a stolen car in Kings Cross, Sydney.

In Melbourne last month a senior officer admitted that a highway patrol officer who shot a man four times at point blank range “certainly knew what he was doing”. The man was killed because the car he was driving was stopped under suspicion of having stolen number plates.

These three incidents are just a selection of many deaths and injuries caused by police gun violence. Many of the victims are unarmed.

Up until the 1970s, it was not common practice for police to carry guns in Australia. By 1993, official policy in all states required police to carry a gun unless otherwise directed. Since then, their guns have increased in calibre and are loaded with increasingly lethal ammunition. Police are able to use “hollow point” bullets, outlawed by the Hague Convention during international conflict, that are designed to kill rather than injure.

Across Australia police also routinely carry so called “non-lethal” weapons such as pepper spray and tasers. Pepper spray contains chemicals that cause intense pain to the eyes as well as temporary blindness, coughing and difficulty breathing – enough to kill an asthmatic.

Since the introduction of tasers in 2002, police in Australia have used this “non-lethal” weapon to kill six people. In two cases, Aboriginal men died after being directly tasered by police. In another case a car hit a 16-year-old boy after he was threatened with a taser and told by police to lie in the road.

The corruption and crime commission in Western Australia found that an unarmed Aboriginal man had been tasered 13 times in a Perth police station in 2008. Investigators found that tasers had been used in 49 percent of incidents where force was deemed “necessary” in 2007, increasing to 74 percent in 2008 and 65 percent in 2009. In the same period, the use of guns rose from 6 percent to 12 percent.

Specialised police squads, initially justified as a response to the threat of terrorism, have been found to be particularly effective in killing members of the public. Academic Jude McCulloch argues in her book Blue Army that “the Special Operations Group (SOG) is used as a testing ground for these new weapons … SOG tactics have been introduced into everyday policing … Shooting to kill is not consistent with minimum force and the police mission to protect life.”

Increased police gun use and ammunition intensity do not correspond with an increase in the number of weapons owned or carried by members of the public, or to any research suggesting that it makes either the police or the public safer.

These are decisions made by both federal and state governments that want to appear tough on crime and maintain control by force whenever it is deemed necessary to protect and serve those at the top.

Foot soldiers of a racist state, by Steph Price

A People’s Hearing into Racism and Policing was held at the Melbourne Town Hall over the weekend of 17-18 August. Inspired by a public hearing organised by anti-racist activists in Oakland, California, earlier this year, it was a space to hear the testimony of people targeted by police.

“Where do I begin?” Mohamad Tabbaa is first to tell his story at the People’s Hearing. He speaks slowly and reads from a piece of paper.

Mohamad was born in Lebanon and has lived in Melbourne since he was 3. He is 28. He has a lot to say about racism and the police. His memory, he explains, “is filled with scattered incidents in no discernible order”. He can’t even remember which one was first.

He remembers, as a young teenager, being rounded up with friends and bashed in the back of divvy vans with the yellow pages. He remembers one of his friends being plucked from the group, taken to a police station and being beaten until he agreed to wipe his own blood from the cell floor.

He remembers that from the age of about 12 he and his friends knew of the crime of being “young Arabs sitting in a group” and how they would simultaneously run at the sight of a police car.

Mohamad grew up in Coburg in Melbourne’s north.

Abdul lives in Flemington, in the inner west. He’s learned about running: “It’s just a thought that’s instilled into you that whenever you see police, you have to run because either way even if [you]’ve done nothing [you]’re already guilty.”

Abdul is 22 and also describes experiences reaching back to his early teenage years. He tells about one night he ran but didn’t get away.

“I had run for 10 minutes, I was exhausted … I came to a stop because I couldn’t go any further … the police officer that had been chasing me catches up, when he catches up it wasn’t good at all. He started beating the hell out me from the back. He started screaming ‘This is what you get you black dog for running.’ He was laying into me, my head, my back … I was … It’s hard for me to explain how I was feeling, I was like, it was over.”

There were times that running wasn’t an option: “I was sitting on the edge of the divvy van … I’m still in handcuffs, I’m in the divvy van. He [police officer] had me in a perfect spot. He’s trying to explain to me that I have no power at all, he can do whatever her wants, whenever he wants.

“He says, ‘You know what I’m gonna do this time, I’m gonna let you go but if you turn around I’ll fucking shoot you.’ After that I jumped out of the divvy van and didn’t say anything … I didn’t look back to be honest, I just walked.”

In Werribee, further west, Nahonu, a young Maori woman, says that the transport police are usually the worst for her.

 “When we go to Werribee station or Hoppers, wherever we go, like travelling, they’re always coming up to us … all we’re doing is trying to get out of Werribbee to go have a day off, to get away from whatever’s happening at the plaza.”

“We’re a different colour to everyone else,” she continues. “Even if I sit at a bus stop the first thing I get asked is, ‘What are you doing here?’

“I’ve even tried to protest it but our parents say that that’s not the thing to do because they’ll come down harder on us because they’re the law.”

The origins of the Australian police, by Ben Hillier

The establishment of the first Night Watch in Sydney in 1789 predates the establishment of the Thames River Police by nearly 10 years, and the London Met by 30.

Watkin Tench, an officer in the First Fleet Marines, related in his journal that 12 convicts were selected by Governor Phillip “for the purpose of being formed into a nightly watch for the preservation of public and private property … [This was] the first system of police [in] the colony …”

Tench described how food scarcity had reduced rations and devastated both the convict population and the soldiers: “I every day see wretches pale with disease and wasted with famine, struggle against the horror of their situation.”

Under such circumstances, it isn’t surprising that some would attempt to gain extra rations from the government store. The Night Watch was brought together in part to make sure those looking for an extra bite would cop a flogging.

By midway through 1789, 15 criminal courts had been convened – around one per month in a population of little more than 1,000. By early 1790, 12 executions had taken place. In 1790 James Williams and William Lane were sentenced to 500 and 2,000 lashes respectively for stealing biscuits. When floods devastated food supplies in 1806, punishments of 500 lashes were regularly meted out.

The security of food was not the only reason for the existence of the police. The legal and policing system was there to ensure that the rich were guaranteed a pliant labour force. So as scarcity declined over time, the most common convict “offences” became drunkenness or absconding from work.

John Macarthur, a captain in the military who, along with some of his fellow officers in the NSW Corps, became one of the richest men in the colony, wrote:

“In former years the system of our establishment was this: when a lot of convicts were received from a ship, they were at once put to some very hard labour … which was a severe punishment to them; we kept them at that kind of work for a considerable period, according to their conduct, and so broke them in, and made them well disposed; taught them the difference between good conduct and bad, the advantages of regular and orderly behaviour.”

Hard labour for convicts fitted with early capitalist ideology. For the emerging capitalist class, property rights were secured through “improving” the land (i.e. putting it to profitable use). “Improvement” required the application of labour (exactly whose was not important).

Forced labour was justified as a means both to reform (improve) the convict and to enrich the colony. It provided intellectual cover for the theft of Aboriginal land on one hand and exploitation of convicts on the other.

The Night Watch was replaced by the Sydney Foot Police in 1790, which came to be known as the constabulary. From 1810 under Governor Macquarie, the apparatus grew in number and became more complex. The first full time magistrate, who was also police superintendent, was appointed. By 1825, 443 people were employed by the government under the category “internal order and security”; 259 of these were police officers.

The early cops were important to the establishment of Australian capitalism. They lagged on their fellow prisoners, helped to establish private property rights, informed on those who had a rightful sense of rebellion to the existing colonial order, monitored the movement of all and sundry and sometimes actively participated in carrying out the most brutal of tortures of miscreants.

For their services, the constabulary were entitled to extra rations, remission of sentences and land grants. In some instances convict overseers were eligible to engage assigned labour – so some convicts even had convict servants.

The original police force stood with the rulers against the ruled. Its members were paid in kind.

John Pat and state violence, by Cathy Lewis

Thirty years ago, a young Aboriginal boy was beaten to death by five off-duty police in Roebourne, Western Australia. His crime had been to defend his friend, who’d been called a “black cunt” and set upon by the officers. His head was bashed in and he was left to die in a cold prison cell.

The autopsy revealed a fractured skull, haemorrhage and swelling as well as bruising and tearing of the brain. He was just 16 years old.

John Pat’s brutal death led to an outpouring of grief and anger. Thousands mobilised across the country, forcing the federal Labor government to announce a Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody.

A coronial inquiry committed the five officers to stand trial – not for murder but for the lesser charge of manslaughter. A year later, they were declared innocent by an all-white jury in Karratha.

The police returned to active duty and later were promoted. While they literally got away with murder, in a sickening twist, charges were laid against some of John’s friends, all of whom were Aboriginal. They were fined for assault, resisting arrest or hindering police.

The Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody made 339 recommendations. To date, most have been ignored.

At the time of the commission’s final report in 1991, Aboriginal people were eight times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal people. A decade later they were 10 times more likely to be imprisoned. Today Aboriginal people are 14 times more likely to be jailed.

John was not the first to die at the hands of racist police, and tragically won’t be the last.

The Pat family, along with countless others, continue to fight for justice and an end to the systemic racism of the police force and the legal system that protects them.

John Pat, by Jack Davis

Write of life / the pious said

forget the past / the past is dead.

But all I see / in front of me

is a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.


Agh! tear out the page / forget his age

thin skull they cried / that's why he died!

But I can't forget / the silhouette

of a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.


The end product / of Guddia* law

is a viaduct / for fang and claw,

and a place to dwell / like Roebourne’s hell

of a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.


He's there – where?

there in their minds now / deep within,

there to prance / a sidelong glance / a silly grin

to remind them all / of a Guddia wall

a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.


* “Guddia” is a Kimberley (north Australian) term for “white man”.