CW: Lost Child, Police Brutality, COVID
*The following story was inspired by recent events in Melbourne, Australia and mixes events from my own life with dramatisation inspired by the story of former Acting Senior Sergeant Krystle Mitchell*
For the desk of the Chief Commissioner,
When I was a young girl, my father took me into the city. There was a parade on and he wanted to see the marching band. He and I got separated in the crowd and I couldn’t find him. I don’t remember how old I was. When Mum tells the story I was six, but when Dad tells it I was four; I figure he would know. I don’t remember much about that day if I’m being completely honest. But I do remember feeling like I was completely lost forever as if Dad would just shrug his shoulders and go home without me and I would have to find a new way to survive. It was as though every person there was eight feet tall. The marching band were playing but even following the cacophonous sounds that dad so loved I couldn’t find my way to the front of the crowd. My chest tightened, tears swelled in my eyes and I bit them back as hard as I could. It felt like I wandered through that sea of people for hours, but realistically it was probably only fifteen minutes before someone noticed me, panicked amongst the gathered masses, and placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder. He came down to one knee so that he and I were face to face. He smiled and asked if everything was ok. I cried. Nothing was okay. He asked who I was with, and what Dad was wearing that day. With his help, I was back in my father's arms in mere minutes. I don’t remember now what Dad was wearing that day, but I’ll never forget the light blue button-up shirt tucked into the powerful navy shorts of my rescuer. That was my first encounter with the Victorian police.
Needless to say, I had a positive opinion of the boys in blue growing up. I’d even told my friends I would probably be a copper when I graduated. I hadn’t made my mind up yet, but it was always an option. I wanted to help people, like that friendly officer when I was a child, I knew that much. I was a good kid, never top of the class or anything but I did well. I never got into any trouble and other than the odd story here and there from friends who liked to skateboard and drink on weekends, I didn’t even hear about the police much let alone interact with them. When I was sixteen I had a boyfriend a bit older than I was, he was in year twelve and I was in year ten. He was a good kid too, the type to be in the high school musical each year and stay back to tutor younger kids every other day. He even swears to this day he didn’t touch a drop of alcohol until his eighteenth birthday, and I believe him. He is the reason I became an officer.
On the night of his year twelve formal, he went to an after-party not far from his house. It wasn’t a rager or anything, they were playing Guitar Hero and drinking Rockstar energy drinks until around 1 am. That was when he called me. We had an agreement. If we knew one or the other were going to a party or a concert and might need to walk anywhere at night, we made sure to keep our phones on loud so we could talk to each other for the walk. It was a safety thing. It provided comfort. And it proved necessary that night.
Now, I don’t have all the details of what unfolded and no report was ever filed. Based on everything he and his Dad told me though, it went something like this. He left the party at 1 am and started his walk home, he lived about 10 minutes away. To get to his house he would need to leave the back gate of his friend’s home, down the alleyway it led onto and into the adjoining park. That park consisted of worn dirt paths amongst the gum trees, and dirt mounds of various sizes manufactured by the local kids for riding their pushbikes over like jumps. He and I would regularly walk through there to get chips at the local tuck shop, then find a nice quiet spot in the big clearing at the bottom end and watch the BMX kids, hoping to see a good crash. After crossing the clearing he would get to another alleyway that led to the corner of his street. It was when he got to the clearing that night, whilst we were gossiping about who went to which after-party and with whom, that his tone changed. He told me that headlights had just turned on at the other end of the clearing. He was scared. I listened as the car approached him and an older male voice said “Get off the phone and into the car.” His breath quickened and I heard a thud and some swearing, he later told me this was him jumping over the hood of the car. He informed me, between panting laboured breaths, that he was being chased. He directed me to call his home phone and tell his Dad that someone was chasing him. I did. He ran through the next alley to the corner of his street where he tripped up the gutter. The man from the car who had given chase dived on him and smashed his head into the gravel and dirt that made up one of his closest friends driveways.
My boyfriend tried to escape his grip and ultimately had his shirt torn half off his back, every button on it popped. It was a nice shirt too. Well, nice for us. I’d bought it for him from General Pants for his formal, a light blue and white paisley button up. He couldn’t get away so he pulled out his wallet and phone and surrendered them pleading for his life, only to be laughed at and asked “What drugs are you on mate? I’m a cop.” Mind you, I was on the phone with him when the car approached. I heard the male voice myself. At no point did they identify themselves as police. When my boyfriend asked to see his badge, he responded that he had left it in the car when he had to get out and give chase and so to identify himself he instead chose to pull his gun from its holster and point it at an innocent seventeen-year-old boy who was being held face down in the dirt, with a knee between the shoulder blades just beneath his neck. Imagine being seventeen, laying there, after running for your life from an unmarked car in a paddock in the early hours of the morning. Imagine your now semi-naked body covered in dirt and your cheek being held against the ground by a mystery assailant claiming to be an officer of the law. Imagine the barrel of a gun becoming visible in your line of sight. “I don’t have my badge, but I have this.”
I called his home phone, of course, so his father knew what was happening and came barreling around the corner with a metal baseball bat at just the moment that twelve cop cars arrived on the scene sirens blazing. His father was detained for brandishing a weapon, though the detective received no reprimand whatsoever that we know of. That detective who had accosted my boyfriend had done so because he matched the description of a youth they were looking for who had stolen a motorcycle and was riding around town kicking over bins. The description? Average height teenage boy of darker complexion with medium length dark hair, wearing jeans and a hoody. My boyfriend wasn’t wearing a hoody but hey, he could have taken it off, right? This is why I joined the force.
There are good cops, and there are bad cops. There always has been, and there always will be. I figured, if you want to have more good than bad then the best solution is to be one. A good one. Keep the rest in check. The goal is, and always has been, for this organisation to serve the community in such a way that every single citizen gets to feel how I felt as a child and not how my boyfriend felt that night. And so sixteen years ago I began my career in law enforcement, it has been a wonderful decade and change. I love my fellow officers like a family. Yes, even the bad ones. I believe in the work we do within the community. As I rose through the ranks and moved into more corporate roles, specifically to do with our ongoing efforts to ensure equality and inclusion, I maintained contact with officers on the front lines and I would regularly sign up for patrols. If you lose touch with the community you are sworn to serve and protect, how can you possibly know the best way in which to serve them? Not to cast aspersions on you Chief, but I feel that this is what has happened to our great organisation.
Last week, on my day off, I decided to take my permitted one hour of outdoor exercise time at the same time as one of the protests happening in our great city. I did not attend the protest, though I did jog around the perimeter and saw what was happening. What I saw, was honestly horrific. Officers firing rubber bullets at people with their backs turned, others pepper-spraying women and children sitting peacefully in protest. Their orders were to disperse the crowd by any means necessary. The only crime the crowd had committed was attending a protest. Why are these protests illegal? Because our great Premier says so. Yet, no law has been passed. These are all mandates given under the guise of emergency powers. Gatherings of similar sizes are allowed to carry on when our football team wins a grand final, yet when the gathering has the purpose of speaking out against the sitting government it is an unsafe and illegal gathering which must be broken up with extreme prejudice. And who has to do that breaking up? You, me, and our brothers and sisters in blue. Say what you will about the protester's views, we need not agree with them to recognise that the human right to protest is essential to the proper working of a democracy. We still claim to be a democracy, our actions speak otherwise. I did not sign up to be a stormtrooper, I did not sign up for this. None of us signed up for this.
We live in unprecedented times, the situation we find ourselves in as a global community dealing with this pandemic is horrifying. Now more than ever, our community needs us. They need our help. They need our reassurance. They need our guidance. They need our leadership. Yet, we have allowed ourselves to become a political tool of the sitting government. Used to crack heads of those who would call into question the actions of the ruling party. Enforcing dictatorial edicts handed down from the highest offices, with no regard to our constitutional law-making process. All for an emergency selectively applied. Our once great organisation is no longer apolitical. The nightly news has taken to implying that these protestors are terrorists. When we, as police, are being asked to violently quell peaceful gatherings because it goes against the political aims of the party; I have to ask. Who are the terrorists really?
Before ever putting on the blues, before training, during our application process - we are taught to run all of our decisions through the SELF-test. Will this choice or action I am taking hold up to scrutiny? Is it ethical? Is it lawful? Is it fair? The answer over these past months has routinely been no. Our actions here will not hold up to scrutiny. Our actions here have not been ethical. Our actions here will not be found to be lawful and our actions here have not been fair. They have not been fair to the citizens we are sworn to protect. They have not been fair to the communities we are sworn to serve. They have not been fair to our brothers and sisters in arms who did not sign up for this, who go home each night ashamed of their uniform where there used to be pride, who cannot look their fellow countrymen in the eye for where there used to be respect there is now only fear. We have become an occupying force and I cannot morally continue to serve under your command.
Former Senior Sergeant Louise Stanford
Gender Equality & Inclusion Command - Western Region