Victoria’s Police Chief Apologises for Systemic Racism and Discrimination Against Indigenous Australians
Adeshola Ore, The Guardian, May 8, 2023
Victoria’s chief police commissioner has unreservedly apologised for past and present actions of the force that inflicted trauma on First Nations people.
Shane Patton appeared before the state’s Indigenous truth-telling inquiry on Monday morning and acknowledged that the police uniform – worn with pride by officers – represents a symbol of fear for some Indigenous Victorians.
He said the actions of police officers had harmed First Nations Victorians in the past and continued to do so today.
“I formally and unreservedly apologise for police actions that have caused or contributed to the trauma experienced by so many Aboriginal families in our jurisdiction,” he said.
The commissioner acknowledged that systemic racism and discriminatory action in the force had gone “undetected, unchecked and unpunished”.
“It should not have happened,” he said.
Asked by Yoorrook commissioner Travis Lovett if he believed oversight of police would be strengthened if there was an independent investigation of police complaints, Patton said: “I do now.”
Patton said that if the Victorian government asked for his advice, he would flag that Victoria police was “open” to implementing an external oversight body.
Victoria police’s reported $42m in payouts in civil settlements over the past five years and high-profile deaths in custody like Indigenous woman Tanya Day, who died after being arrested for being drunk on a train, have sparked calls for an independent police oversight body.
The Yoorrook commissioners also criticised content contained in internal police training materials.
One “police foundation training” document on Aboriginal cultural awareness included commentary that some First Nations people consider being a member of the stolen generations the “best thing that happened to them”. Another training document referred to “payback” as an Aboriginal cultural practice.
Commissioner Sue-Anne Hunter said she found the content “offensive.”
Commissioner Kevin Bell said he was “embarrassed” to read the training content, arguing it “denigrated” Indigenous people.
Patton said he had not read the documents in their entirety and vowed to immediately review all training material to ensure it did not include similar rhetoric.
Yoorrook chair Eleanor Bourke acknowledged the apology and said it was significant for it to be on the public record. Patton will face further questioning on Monday afternoon. Bourke provided Patton with a shield, as a symbol of the commission’s plea for Victoria police to protect Indigenous communities and respect their human rights.
Donna Nelson, mother of First Nations woman Veronica who died in custody in 2020, also sat in the front row of the public gallery during the hearing. Veronica Nelson’s death sparked renewed calls for overhauling Victoria’s controversial bail laws.
The police minister, Anthony Carbines, told the hearing that there had been no charges against police officers in any of the 33 Indigenous deaths in Victoria in the state since the 1991 royal commission into the issue. Carbines conceded that accountability had been “lacking”.
Carbines also said that there was no whole-of-government strategy to reduce systemic discrimination towards Indigenous people.
Victoria’s child protection minister, Lizzie Blandthorn, and corrections minister, Enver Erdogan, will appear at the inquiry later this week.
Yoorrook is Australia’s first Indigenous truth-telling body and has the same powers as a royal commission.
Its mandate is to investigate historical and current systemic injustices against First Nations people and it will produce a final report by mid-2025.