Our report into the policing of the Roe 8 protests and community responses was launched in May 2017. CounterAct supported the Beeliar Legal Support team to coordinate this, and the community survey that informed the report.
The summary is below, and the full report can be downloaded here: Policing of Beeliar. It outlines a series of unlawful assaults, horse tramplings, inappropriate use of force and a culture of violence directed by senior officers.
This was a voluntary effort, coordinated by CounterAct and Beeliar Legal Support and the legal observer team. If you support police accountability and support for nonviolent activism, please chip in.
We also conducted a community survey, featuring over 200 community respondents and significant evidence of loss of trust, serious distress in the community and more than 100 documented incidences of negative interactions with police. That is available here
A series of videos of various breaches, which are linked into the report have been collated on this channel – horses being ridden into crowds, aggressive arrests, use of handcuffs, someone being hurt whilst being removed from a “lock on”. Other videos are also linked and embedded into the report. We expect this report being launched will trigger further evidence coming forward.
We are calling on the Police Minster for a thorough investigation into individual instances as well as the systemic culture of this aggressive policing and broadscale attacks on a mainstream community expressing political dissent. You can join the community response and email her here.
Video of various incidents
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF COUNTRY
This report was written on Whadjuk country, Nyoongar boodja and we pay our respects to the traditional custodians of this land, and to all traditional custodians standing up for country. We are grateful to the leadership demonstrated by traditional custodian over three decades of this long-standing campaign and we also note that Aboriginal people are broadly subject to discriminatory and racialised policing, and this was evident during the period that this report covers.
This report examines the policing of Roe 8 protests that occurred over a three-month period, from early December 2016 to mid-March 2017. The protest/s, which took place near Coolbellup, Perth, were related to the construction of the ‘Perth Freight Link’ and the ‘Build Roe 8 Project’.
The incidents, as documented by a Legal Observer team and citizen media, have been compiled to highlight a pattern of unreasonable and arguably unlawful use of force, and demonstrate patterns of policing that appear to target community activists in a punitive manner. Both sources reported elevated levels of distress and fear in response to escalating policing practices and the constriction of space to express political dissent, limits to freedom of assembly and an increase in physical injury by police. Specific issues included:
- Over policing – the use of public order teams, horse-mounted police in confined spaces, large numbers of deployed police officers.
- Misrepresentation – police not being open and honest with protesters or Legal Observers about procedures, protester rights, and police responsibilities; police intentionally hiding or covering their names, and police restricting Legal Observers access to arrested activists.
- Violence – the use of OC or ‘capsicum/pepper’ spray against protesters, inappropriate and abusive comments to activists and Legal Observers, excessive use of force to move activists or restrain activists, use of horses in a manner that endangered protesters, use of dogs for intimidation, and threats to use tasers on peaceful community members.
A community survey has further shown deep levels of distress and mistrust related to the policing of the Beeliar protests, and we believe these findings will need to be addressed for police to regain the trust of the community in the Coolbellup, Fremantle and extended regions. A summary is at Appendix 1, and the full report is available online.
The extent and the seriousness of this series of reported experiences are symptomatic of a widespread problem with policing of community protest in Western Australia. While this report highlights a range of incidents that need to be reviewed, this must be viewed in a broader political/legal context. The overall culture of policing that allows, and can implicitly support, these behaviours is the greater issue.
An entire community with mainstream and widely held concerns was essentially criminalised, and treated as hostile, whilst a heavy police presence, dogs and razor wire guarded the machines that were overseeing the politically motivated destruction of local bushland and wetlands.
We are calling for a thorough investigation, into the broader issues, as well as individual breaches recorded. We would like to see reform to the management of police complaints, as well as various policy and procedural changes to reframe how police interact with non-violent community protest.
As a result of these findings, we are calling for an independent inquiry to be established with the active participation of civil society representatives, that interrogates and determines:
- Decision-making related to the culture of policing and level of force used during the protest/s, including the use of move on notices, directives regarding use of force and deployment of animals and less lethal weapons.
- Accountability and disciplinary processes for individual officers who are the subject of complaints regarding unnecessary, unreasonable or disproportionate force, and for complainants to be advised of clear outcomes.
- Policy and procedural reforms around the policing of peaceful community protest as per individual recommendations.
We also reiterate calls made by the community legal sector nationwide for an independent police complaints mechanism in each State, and note the ongoing concerns shared interstate with the current deeply inadequate complaints process which still sees police investigating police, and very rarely finding in favour of complainants. We would support similar recommendations for Western Australia as are outlined in this Policy Briefing Paper from Victoria, Independent Investigation into Complaints Against Police.
A community survey (Appendix 1) has further shown deep levels of distress and mistrust related to the policing of the Beeliar protests, and we believe these concerns will need to be addressed for police to regain the trust of the community.
- Legislation is amended to mandate that police wear badges, and are required to identify themselves on request, with sanctions introduced if they do not comply.
- Internal procedures and/or physical capacity to ensure that badges can be easily moved from shirts to other vests, and additional badges supplied so they can be worn on both. Or badges to be permanently affixed to each uniform piece.
- Investigation into why dogs were not muzzled according to police protocol (12/1/17 and subsequent incidents) given there was no threat of bodily harm.
- Dogs not to be deployed during non-violent crowd control; or at least to remain muzzled as per protocol.
- Current policy should be amended to specifically state that tasers are not to be used for compliance purposes.
- Tasers should not be used, nor be threatened to be used, in non-violent community protest situations.
- Police officers should be further trained in non-violent, de-escalation techniques.
- Threats to use tasers (threatening assault) should be investigated and the officers sanctioned.
- Police involved in deployment of pepper spray (#170216) to be sanctioned for inappropriate use of force, and receive training regarding appropriate deployment of OC spray and de-escalation skills.
- OC spray should not be deployed in non-violent community protest situations.
- Police to be educated about the appropriate deployment of handcuffs and use of force.
- Report of use of handcuffs during the campaign period, and justifications for use.
- There should be a review of section 27 of the Criminal Investigation Act 2006 to formulate appropriate amendments to the section to ensure that move-on notices are not used to prevent picketing and protests, and are not used in a way that unnecessarily impacts on indigenous people.
- Investigation into cases when people were kept in custody overnight.
- Investigation into strip search (Ref: 170206) and unlawful arrest.
- Earthmoving and construction work should cease on sites where protesters are attached to machines, or trees.
- Police to be educated about OHS guidelines in relation to contractors they are working with.
- Clear points of contact/liaison officers should be established on work sites to communicate with protesters.
- Liaison points established between police and Aboriginal custodians where requested.
- Cultural awareness training to be increased within the police force.
- Further dialogue between police and Aboriginal representatives as appropriate.
All recommendations are supported by Rethink the Link, the Beeliar Legal Support team, Wetland Defenders, Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre, Conservation Council (WA), Friends of the Earth (Australia), Australian Nonviolence Projects and the National Police Accountability Project.
Ultimately at stake is the civilian right to protest. The proposed road projects have been contested in their various forms for more than thirty years, and have involved a wide coalition of civil society groups, local governments, political parties, Save Beeliar Wetlands, Rethink the Link, and Nyoongar traditional custodians.
Concerns were widespread and included issues with the flawed business case, the economics of the project, the lack of due process and transparency, or government adherence to their own policy and laws, as well as concerns regarding the destruction of sensitive ecosystems, wetlands, community amenity and Aboriginal sacred sites. Further detail of the project background is available in Appendix 2.
Numerous interventions were attempted over many years, from wide scale public awareness raising, petitions, marches, rallies and concerts, to significant legal challenges proceeding through Supreme Court (Court of Appeal) and Federal Court, a Senate inquiry, and attempts to raise heritage and Aboriginal site concerns at State and Federal levels. All other avenues of response thus being exhausted, and in the context of the current legislation and government policy failing to address environmental and cultural concerns, the local community were left with no other option than non-violent protest in an attempt to delay the destruction until the 2017 state election.
It is widely acknowledged that the clearing work was accelerated in late 2016 by the then Liberal government for political reasons, despite the Main Roads Department providing recommendations for less destructive and damaging alternatives.
Mr McGowan attacked the former Barnett government after a leaked briefing memo showed it could have started the Roe 8 construction more cheaply and without causing as much damage to the environmentally sensitive wetlands. “They [the former Liberal-National government] decided to go for the harshest, meanest, nastiest and most expensive option,” Premier Mark McGowan said. “They should be condemned for this.”
The demographics of the people attending the protest were genuinely diverse. Concerned citizens came from across the metropolitan area and involved people from many professions, including academics, accountants, trades people, doctors, lawyers, as well as diverse age demographics, and many local families. (A survey that outlines demographic data and experiences of arrest and policing is at Appendix 1)
Despite the mainstream nature of the participants, the community was regularly misrepresented in the mainstream media by Premier Colin Barnett and other Ministers. This is consistent with patterns of vilification of Human Rights Defenders noted by the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, who, in a visit to Australia last year, “…called on government officials and politicians to refrain from calling environmentalists “eco-criminals, traitors and green radicals”
The non-violent defence of the wetlands by protesters has been vindicated since the election of the ALP government who ceased work on the project on the day they took office. Furthermore, high profile lawyer, John Hammond has argued that the charges applied to protesters should be dropped as they are not in the public interest:
Now that Roe 8 is not proceeding, I don’t see that it would be in the public interest for those charges to proceed. I really think it is time now for the new government and the WA Police to say “look, Roe 8 is over, this is something in the past, and the charges against the various protesters should be dropped”.
Fremantle councillor, Samuel Wainwright, who was arrested during the protests said, “I am actually more concerned about the laws that were potentially broken by the individuals and government agencies in this great big effort to try and get as much clearing done as part of an election stunt basically”.
There has been broad speculation in the community as to whether there was a political directive to the WA Police to ‘go in hard’ as the police response was disproportionate and harsh. Large numbers of police were deployed from early stages, and there was very little discretion demonstrated from the beginning of the civil disobedience phase of the campaign. This was demonstrated by the sheer size and scale of the police response, as well as early trespass charges for people walking on the site – when typically, warnings would be given, and discretion applied.
Distress was experienced by the community in relation to not only the environmental and cultural damage, and loss of amenity, but also the way in which the project was policed. We believe it is imperative that these concerns are taken seriously, and in the future no community should ever again be subject to this level of over-policing and systemic aggression.
It is vital to note that Nyoongar and other Aboriginal people who participated in these protest actions consistently experience different standards of policing in their everyday lives, and that numerous survey respondents, and protest participants shared sentiments similar to “now we understand more what Aboriginal people go through”.
The Legal Support Team that provided assistance during the campaign included lawyers, law students, civil society representatives, and community members from a range of occupations acting as citizen Legal Observers. Legal Observers and Police Liaison were on the ground for many of the mass actions, identified variously in bright pink, or orange high visibility vests.
The Legal Support Team supported the community activists to defend their own civil and political rights though the provision of Legal Observer training, ‘Know Your Rights’ training, free resources and up-to-date information on the rights to protest in the State of Western Australia, education about dealing with Court processes, and referral to lawyers for pro bono advice and representation for criminal charges. Twenty-three lawyers assisted protesters on a pro bono basis. Police Liaison representatives negotiated and advocated for the interests of the protesters, while the Legal Observers played a documentary role. Both roles involved the tracking and monitoring of arrests.
This report was completed by the Legal Observers team with legal advice.