Tuesday 24 August 2021, 3:45 pm
The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT (ALS) has issued an urgent demand for NSW Police to use discretion in applying public health orders, warning that excessive fines and charges will only cause further harm to communities.
The ALS has received multiple calls from Aboriginal people fined and charged for breaching the public health orders in towns including Brewarrina, Bourke, Walgett and Wilcannia as well as Sydney.
“COVID is a health issue, not a criminal matter. You can’t police your way out of a pandemic,” said Anthony Carter, Deputy CEO of the ALS.
“We need to protect our communities. The best way to do that is by caring for those who are vulnerable, not hanging hefty fines and prison time over people’s heads.”
The ALS is urging police officers to work in partnership with Aboriginal communities to ensure people’s needs are met, despite Police Commissioner Mick Fuller’s message last week for officers to “put community policing aside”.
“By ensuring community members are safe and housed, that they have access to food and healthcare, police will do a lot more to curtail COVID than indiscriminately handing out fines,” Mr Carter said.
The ALS is disturbed by several reports of police inappropriately issuing fines and court attendance notices.
In one instance, a man with known mental health issues was stopped by police in a regional NSW town. Despite being known to wander and despite the local police command’s knowledge of the man’s mental illness, he was charged with breaching public health orders and will now have to attend court.
In another example, a teenage girl living in out-of-home care needed to be notified that she was a close contact of a COVID case. She became aware that police were looking for her and having previous negative experiences with authorities, she was deeply afraid she was going to be locked up. Her carers were eventually able to locate her and reassure her, and she is now isolating.
Mr Carter said this young person’s experience demonstrates the dangers of abandoning community policing.
“When you make people afraid, they’re less likely to come to you if they have a problem. Many police officers have worked hard in recent years to build trust in the community. All that work risks being undone by just a few weeks of hard-line, punitive policing,” Mr Carter said.
“If you’re an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person and you receive a fine or infringement notice, please call the ALS on 1800 765 767. We can help to explore your options,” Mr Carter said.
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