Police keen to rebuild trust after Mardi Gras incidents
- Peter Hackney
- Thursday, 14 March 2013
Like the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York, the first Sydney Mardi Gras in 1978 was largely a protest against police harassment of GLBTI people.
And like the Stonewall Riots, police violently broke up the first Mardi Gras, injuring dozens and arresting scores.
An incredible shift in attitudes has seen the relationship between queer people and police transformed since then, to the point where NSW Police now march in the Mardi Gras Parade each year.
But some members of the GLBTI community are calling that relationship into question after this year’s Mardi Gras, which was marred by several ugly incidents between police and members of the public.
In the most widely publicised case, 18-year-old Jamie Jackson was slammed into the ground by a police officer after the parade on Saturday, March 2, in scenes recorded by mobile phone cameras, which went viral around the world.
The outrage – fed by global publicity from The Sydney Morning Herald to The New York Times; Channel Nine to the BBC – has cooled somewhat, with new footage showing Mr Jackson kicking out at police officers, and stories of the young man subsequently boasting online about being “famous”. But questions remain about whether the police actions were necessary or appropriate.
Worryingly, 32-year-old gay activist Bryn Hutchinson was also injured during an altercation with police on the same night, and 55-year-old Gary Leeson says he was strip-searched for drugs in public view outside the Mardi Gras Harbour Party on February 23.
Things reached tipping point last Friday night when a rally was held in Taylor Square, Darlinghurst and participants marched to ‘The Bunker’ – the Orwellian concrete building on Goulburn St housing the Sydney Police Centre and Surry Hills Police Station.
Organisers estimate 2000 people attended (police say it was closer to 1000) and speakers such as City of Sydney Councillor Irene Doutney and Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) spokesperson Cat Rose demanded an independent inquiry into police activity at Mardi Gras.
The developments certainly haven’t gone unnoticed inside The Bunker. Senior police are at pains to ensure years of hard work building bridges with GLBTI people are not ruined by a handful of (albeit very serious) incidents.
Few have worked harder to ensure good relations between gays and police than Chief Superintendent Donna Adney, who is the NSW Police Corporate Spokesperson for GLBTI issues.
“Whatever has happened, it can’t be allowed to sever all the good work that’s occurred over the past few years,” says Supt Adney.
“There were approximately 350,000 people attending Mardi Gras this year, and over 1000 police keeping people safe, so we can’t let these incidents destroy everything.”
While she’s a married, heterosexual woman, there’s no doubting Supt Adney’s commitment to the GLBTI community. Ask her why she feels so strongly about it and she will speak at length about the injustices GLBTI people have faced, and her desire to “protect the community”, with such passion that even a cynical journalist can see her genuine desire to do good.
“Our view as police has not changed,” Supt Adney insists. “We were there to keep you safe before, we are there to keep you safe now, and we will be there in the future to keep you safe. Whether it’s in Surry Hills, whether it’s in Blacktown, or whether it’s in Balranald.”
Meanwhile, Jackie Braw, NSW Police Senior Programs Officer for GLBTI issues, points out that for each negative story about police, there are many positive ones, most of which never see the light of day.
“I get a lot of positive feedback from groups like the Gender Centre [and GLBTI youth service] Twenty10,” she says. “And they’re not always about [gay and lesbian liaison officers] or inner city police – we’ll get positive comments about someone in a western suburbs command who’s dealt really well with a transgender victim of violence. It’s heartening to get that feedback. But it never gets any airtime because it’s not a sexy story.”
But the fact remains that several serious incidents involving police did occur at Mardi Gras this year.
Supt Tony Crandell, who’s in charge of the Surry Hills Local Area Command, says police can’t discuss the ins and outs of the cases, with the matters now before the courts.
But he has this message for the GLBTI community: “These incidents have been referred to Professional Standards Command, who’ll take carriage of the investigation. I have complete confidence that Professional Standards Command will investigate them thoroughly.
“They will also be oversighted by the NSW Ombudsman – and anyone who’s had dealings with the Ombudsman knows this is a robust and very thorough process.”
Yet calls for an independent inquiry continue – and not just from the usual ‘rabble rousers’.
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, known for her diplomacy and careful choice of words, doesn’t beat about the bush.
“These incidents have shown there is a lot of work needed to change the culture in parts of the police force,” says Ms Moore. “There needs to be a full and independent investigation, which includes recommendations to improve police culture.”
The issue of an independent investigation is bound to be one of many discussed at an upcoming community forum, brokered by state Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich.
The meeting will be held at the NSW Teachers Federation Auditorium in Surry Hills from 7pm Tuesday, March 19. Interested parties can register their attendance at www.alexgreenwich.com.
“I’m pleased to report the allegations of police mistreatment during Mardi Gras are being taken very seriously,” says Mr Greenwich. “The Minister for Police was in my office within hours of these incidents coming to light.
“It’s my hope the forum will be an opportunity for people to express their concerns and hopefully be reassured that the relationship between NSW Police and the GLBTI community continues, and is in fact strengthened, in the wake of these incidents.”
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