Brutality exposes dark heart of Australian police culture

The shocking footage of a Victorian pensioner being beaten outside his home by police has highlighted a festering blight that taints governance in this country, revealing some very dark truths about how we citizens can expected to be treated by those who wield the gun and the baton over us. Concerned for his welfare as he came off his pain medication, the carers of the pensioner, only identified as John, called the authorities and half a dozen police officers were dispatched. Despite the fact that John asked the officers to leave, saying he wanted to be left alone, the police told him that they would break down his door if he didn’t let them in. Once he unlocked the door, the police pepper sprayed him, dragged him out of his home and to the ground, beat his leg with a baton, and then six of them pinned him to the ground as he cried out from the  pain in his back he had just had surgery on. You have to wonder what the carers, concerned for his welfare, would have thought of his treatment at the hands of police officers supposedly there to check on his welfare.

Neither is this the first instance of brutality that has to come to light in recent months. Victoria Police has been caught beating and stomping on a man as they were arresting him. In Queensland, after a video showing police beating a handcuffed man in police custody was leaked to the media, the only man prosecuted was the one who leaked it, rather than the officers who had brutalized a man in their care. The senior officer at the time, seen washing away the blood of the man after he had beaten, even managed to get a promotion before he retired just as the report was about to drop! In Western Australia, the Crime and Corruption Commission found a police officer had engaged in “serious misconduct” after he was caught on camera tasing a driver during a traffic stop, and uncovered serious findings against an officer that tried to stop one of the other occupants from filming the encounter.

These specific cases are notable because of the existence of footage that caught the bad actions of police officers on camera. How many people are assaulted or mistreated by police but garner no attention because no one has any footage of what transpired? How many people are assaulted by police but not believed because the police claim they were subject to hostility from those they were subduing? The police claim that John came at them with fists raised, which might seem plausible until you see the footage of six officers mercilessly beating an old man. Who else has suffered purely because they didn’t have their own CCTV system installed, or didn’t have a friend nearby with a smartphone?

These cases, taken just from this year, highlight something deeply rotten about the way the state relates to its citizens. Much as the use of body cameras and smart phones have blown the lid on police shootings in the US, and the dangerous disregard for life that many officers have over there, these cases show that some of our own police officers also have contempt for the wellbeing of those they are supposed to protect and serve. Combined with disturbing examples such as the death in custody of Ms Dhu, we see a picture of officers driven to either hostility or apathy, and brutalizing those in their care.

What explains this behaviour though? It certainly isn’t the case that every police officeris a thuggish bully, for such a state of affairs would be intolerable in any circumstance short of the violent suppression of the citizenry. So what enables some officers to behave despicably towards others and get away with it when many of their peers conduct themselves properly? The most obvious cause is that police are not governed by the same incentives as the rest of us; that as a creature of the state, they can abuse those who fund their operation with impunity, for we are not able to take our business elsewhere.

This wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for how this dovetails with high levels of public support for police. Ordinarily, if a government agency misbehaves, you would expect our political representatives to reprimand that agency for abusing the power and responsibilities entrusted to them. However, politicians have their own incentives, separate from notions of good governance, and targeting a group of people highly favoured in the community for sustained criticism is bad politics. Even the most casual observer of elections would note that promises of greater police funding is a bipartisan affair, and that both Liberal and Labor are keen to portray themselves as a friend of the force While the assault of John in Victoria brought forth concerned comments from both Premier and the Opposition Leader, neither seemed to indicate that they thought this might be part of a larger problem or that large scale reform is something that might be needed.

Another aspect of the lack of accountability is the way governments shield individual police officers when they assault others during the course of their employment. If you are subject to police mistreatment, it is taxpayers that will be on the hook, not the cop who directly assaulted you. When they are on the clock, police officers are typically indemnified by the government that employs them, meaning that it is you and I that will pay for the damages that are found as a result of any civil case against a police officer. Unless the government itself punishes the officer for their misconduct, they can essentially walk away scot-free. If you suffer no consequence for your actions, how likely are you to refrain from doing similar in future?

Finding a path to real reform is difficult, for all of the political reasons already stated. Politicians have little incentive to chase this up, and the sheer size and scale of the bureaucracy of government works in the favour of the status quo. Clark Neily, from Washington DC’s Cato Institute, made one excellent suggestion for reigning in police brutality: forcing individual police officers to carry private liability insurance instead of taxpayers indemnifying them. When you have a system where a handful of individuals are the ones causing all the problems, those individual officers are likely to find themselves paying a much higher premium to be indemnified from their actions. Private insurers have a much greater incentive than politicians to keep track of payouts for brutality, and to force up their premiums, driving them either to modify their behaviour, pay the costs themselves or to leave the police force. Many occupations, like doctors, already require private liability insurance so it wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary to require police to do the same.

In the meantime, we can protect each other by watching out for police interactions with our fellow citizens and keeping a hand close to your smartphone. Until politicians start taking police accountability seriously, we can only rely on each other to ensure that cops are on their best behaviour.

Lee Herridge

Lee Herridge

Lee is studying Economics and Accounting at Notre Dame University in Fremantle, Western Australia. He is host and producer of the Taking Liberties Radio podcast, and blogs at his Facebook page Aussie Liberty (https://www.facebook.com/AussieLiberty/).
Lee Herridge

1 Comment on "Brutality exposes dark heart of Australian police culture"

  1. Andrew Russell | 13/04/2018 at 5:28 pm | Reply

    Thank you for this excellent article. It details the causes of the problem and provides a very practical method to ameliorate it.

    I will say that this is an interesting counterpoint to what we might call the “official Black Lives Matter” discourse. According to this discourse, police brutality is entirely a matter of police racism. Your article shows that we can’t reduce police brutality to racism, and that a general “police culture can encourage the abuse of authority” argument has substantial explanatory power. This backs a Public Choice argument rather than a “its because cops are racist” argument.

    In the wake of Nancy Maclean’s work (I use the term “work” loosely), it is obvious that treating police brutality as a problem with incentives/police unions/policy/incentives has become politically incorrect, because that would imply the problem *isn’t* reducible to racism and therefore the solution *isn’t* reducible to “voting for the establishment left.” The idea that Public Choice Theory could explain atrocious conduct by cops thus needs to be attacked; Maclean’s attack on Buchanan was arguably part of doing that.

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