Cops and queers – friends or foes?
- Peter Hackney
- Wednesday, 6 March 2013
NSW Police and this state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) community have had a chequered relationship.
Police have traditionally been seen by LGBTI people as enemies – and there’s been good reason for this: until 1984, homosexuality was illegal in NSW. Within many LGBTI people’s lifetimes, police were the ground troops enforcing anti-gay government policy.
To be fair, the police didn’t make the laws, but were merely enforcing them – they were a reflection of society, not its shapers.
And society has changed, in NSW and Australia at least. In 2013, things are hunky dory between cops and queers, right?
Not so, if two disturbing incidents last Saturday, after the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade, are any indication.
18-year-old Jamie Jackson was bashed by police in front of dozens of people, in confronting scenes recorded by onlookers’ mobile phones.
That footage has now gone viral via social media, and made headlines worldwide.
Mr Jackson’s experience will already be familiar to many readers – but at least one other person was bashed by police in very similar circumstances.
32-year-old Bryn Hutchinson, a gay social worker who recently completed his Masters in Bioethics at the University of Sydney, had enjoyed what’s being hailed as one of the best Mardi Gras Parades of recent years.
The parade had finished, the crowd control barriers on Oxford St had come down, and people were starting to disperse.
As Mr Hutchinson tells it, he was crossing Oxford St outside the Colombian Hotel, and was almost halfway across the street when he heard yelling.
A police officer was ordering him not to cross the road, for reasons unknown.
Mr Hutchinson concedes that he disobeyed the officer and kept walking, rather than stop in the road or turn around.
The penalty for this act? Mr Hutchinson says he was crash-tackled to the ground by four or five officers, crushed, beaten and kicked.
“I can’t say exactly how many officers because it was all so sudden but before I knew it I was on the ground with my face pushed into the road,” he says.
“At least one officer started kicking me … and I had a lot of weight on me and couldn’t breathe. I told them I was having trouble breathing and one of them said: ‘If you can talk, you can breathe’.”
Mr Hutchinson’s partner and friends were held back from the melee by other police officers, who arrived quickly on the scene.
He says he was handcuffed, pushed roughly into a paddy wagon, charged with “assaulting a police officer” and driven to nearby Surry Hills Police Station.
He wasn’t taken inside but thrown out in the front of the building, with a summons to appear in court on April 4.
That Mr Hutchinson is gay, and that the event occurred on queer Sydney’s night of nights, doesn’t automatically mean the police actions were anti-gay.
But their alleged response to Mr Hutchinson, if true, certainly implies it.
Mr Hutchinson is the former co-convenor of lobby group Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH), and is well known in gay circles as a polite, gentle, intelligent activist.
He’s had significant dealings with NSW Police, both at Surry Hills Local Area Command (LAC) and Sydney LAC, organising marriage equality rallies.
He says while being beaten and detained by police, he tried to explain his history of working with police, and that he was “on their side”.
“They said: ‘We don’t care about any of that, we’re from Parramatta’,” says Mr Hutchinson.
Superintendent Tony Crandell, Commander of Surry Hills LAC, confirms that on Mardi Gras night, police were drafted in from other LACs to help with crowd control, including from Parramatta.
“An event as big as Mardi Gras, with over 1,000 officers on the ground, is beyond the capacity of Surry Hills to handle alone,” he says.
Supt Crandell couldn’t comment on the specifics of the case, with the matter now before the courts, but did say: “We’re taking this very seriously. We’re in the process of obtaining CCTV footage from the City of Sydney as part of our investigations.”
Surry Hills LAC has made great strides in repairing the relationship between police and LGBTI people.
Supt Crandell has won the respect of many in the community with his open, friendly and direct approach, building on years of hard work by Chief Supt Donna Adney, the former Surry Hills Commander who is also NSW Police Corporate Spokesperson for GLBTI Issues.
Mr Hutchinson says police brutality against gay people doesn’t only harm the victims – but also police who’ve worked hard to establish good relationships with queer communities.
“It’s a great shame,” he laments.
In many ways, this incident could not come at a worse time for NSW Police.
Hard questions are currently being asked about an alleged police practice of classifying gay hate homicides as suicides, death by misadventure or just plain old “unsolved” in the 1980s and ’90s.
The questions have largely been propelled by the family of Scott Johnson, who died in 1988 at a gay ‘beat’ in Manly.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported this week that Mr Johnson’s death is the thin end of the wedge, with “at least 50” gay hate murders unsolved or swept under the carpet by police.
It is against this background that the case of Mr Hutchinson must be determined.
Mr Hutchinson is asking for public assistance in making that determination. “At least three people filmed what happened on their phones and there were many other witnesses. I really need them to come forward so I can clear my name,” he says.
Anyone in a position to help can contact this newspaper, which will put them in touch with Mr Hutchinson.
Meanwhile, NSW Police are also calling for assistance. Witnesses to the incidents involving either men are urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
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