Police IQ shocker in Pig City

In episode three of the classic British comedy The Young Ones, there’s a scene where one cop tells another he’s had a “heavy bust up this morning with m’lady” because he insulted the Pope. “That’s a bit stupid, you know she’s Catholic,” the other says. “Yeah, I know she’s Catholic. I didn’t know the Pope was,” comes the reply. The scene then cuts away to a photograph of the pair above a Guardian headline: “Police IQ Shocker”.

But in an age where real life is becoming impossible to satirise, you couldn’t have made the following confrontation from last weekend up. A Queensland cop who identifies himself as senior constable Richard Power approaches a man minding his own business in a car park outside a hardware store. The man, who is suffering from a heavy cold, just happens to be the local police reporter for the ABC, Josh Bavas.

“Mate, the fact that you’ve got pinpoint eyes and you’re looking directly into the sun and they’re not dilating due to the sunlight, I believe you to be under the influence of a dangerous drug,” he says, before detaining him. When Bavas protests, the officer’s colleague replies “Oh fucking mate, if we hadn’t have hung onto you mate, you’d float off into fucking outer space.”

Bavas records and posts the exchange on Twitter, where it immediately goes viral – #dickpower trending nationally – and makes headlines. He is soon released without charge and goes back to building a retaining wall at home. The Queensland Police Service says it is investigating the behaviour of the officers concerned. Bavas then deletes the footage (you can still see it here) and declines to pursue the matter.

That is a matter for him. But there are a number of points to be made here, beyond jokes and stereotypes about Queensland police, about whom many songs have been written, a legacy of the vicious corruption that hung over the Bjelke-Petersen years (for more on that, read Matt Condon’s breathtakingly detailed Three Crooked Kings trilogy, and watch the bodies pile up over three decades).

The first reaction, beyond the “IQ shocker” of a narc who believes pupils should dilate when looking at the sun, is fascination at what happens when the surveillance state is turned upon itself. When the second officer swears, Power reminds him he is being recorded – not only by Bavas but Power, too, who has a camera planted on his uniform. We hear a grunted apology.

The lesson here is a reminder of your legal right to record any untoward interaction you may have with law enforcement. It’s not often we see such naked police hostility, and ineptitude, itself being policed by someone with the presence of mind to record, challenge and disseminate it, let alone by someone who reports on police and court proceedings for a living.

The second reaction is more troubling, and has been pointed out by the ABC’s Mark Colvin. It’s not that the wallopers picked on the “wrong guy” – a white police journalist who knows his rights. How does any member of the force think it’s appropriate to behave in such a contemptuous manner towards any member of the public?

To detain Bavas, the police needed a “reasonable suspicion” that Bavas had committed a crime, or was about to. Reasonable suspicions can be difficult to define, but it’s doubtful presuming a man to be “pinned” because his pupils failed to dilate in direct sunlight would impress any magistrate.

What has been said of the situation’s broader context only makes it worse. Allegations have been made that the officers’ suspicions were aroused because Bavas was seated close to a group of young Indigenous people. Power apparently asked Bavas if he was with them, before turning his attention to the youths and questioning whether the car they were travelling in was stolen.

Two dumb officers, or a wider problem? The “bad apples” theory is unlikely to fly with the Indigenous community, for whom such low-level harassment is a disproportionately high reality. Twenty-five years after the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, the risk of Indigenous Australians being imprisoned remains 13 times higher than for the general population.

Of course, that is a national problem, not limited to Queensland. In the wake of the announcement of another royal commission into the abuse of youths at Don Dale Detention Centre in Darwin – which had been reported on for years before the image of Dylan Voller in a spit hood sparked national revulsion – there have been many calls for its remit to be widened beyond the Northern Territory’s borders.

The QPS has looked into its own culture in a series of reviews in the last 12 months after widespread allegations of excessive force, bullying and inappropriate behaviour centred on the Gold Coast, unfortunately bucking an overall statewide reduction in complaints. Another review looked at how to de-escalate violent confrontations, following a series of fatal police shootings between 2013 and 2014.

What happened to Bavas by contrast was petty, even ridiculous, and made the officers concerned look like fools. Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk expressed her concerns and reminded the force of its obligation to treat all members of the public with respect, before acknowledging that officers had a difficult job to do – sentiments quickly echoed by Bavas.

No one doubts policing is a tough gig. But in a culture where “tough on crime” talkback rhetoric rules, civil liberties have been steadily eroded, surveillance is endorsed by both major parties as the price we pay for security, and racial profiling is officially frowned upon but unofficially viewed as cautionary, the security apparatus of the state can only be emboldened.

What happened at Don Dale shows where that can end. What happened to Josh Bavas gives the rest of us a glimpse into where it begins.

First published in The Guardian, 16 August 2016

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