‘Copwatch’ Program Encourages Indigenous Australians To Expose Police Violence

Indigenous Australians nationwide are being urged to use technology to expose systemic police brutality and violence. The Sydney-based nonprofit legal service National Justice Project has launched Copwatch, a program that seeks to empower Indigenous Australians to film their interactions with authorities as a way of highlighting the misconduct and cruelty many have experienced at the hands of police.

George Newhouse, the principal solicitor for the National Justice Project, says any footage, be it sound or video, can be used to expose harassment and violence perpetrated by authorities and lead to real change. He told the Huffington Post, “What we’re trying to achieve is more effective policing, safer Aboriginal communities that work functionally with their local police force, lower incarceration rates for Aboriginal people, and ultimately the ability of Aboriginal people to tell their own story.”

The organization raised over $60,000 through crowdfunding to finance the program, which began last week with a workshop in Broken Hill, New South Wales (NSW). Attendees, including Aboriginal adults, children, and service providers, were trained in using their mobile phones to safely and legally document police indiscretions. They were also shown how such footage can be posted to social media to expose malpractice or be used as evidence in court. Workshops are designed to highlight the ethical and practical implications of filming in public as well as the power of citizen journalism. Over twenty different Indigenous communities have expressed an interest in the initiative, including groups in Redfern, Alice Springs, and Kalgoorlie.

At a workshop hosted in Perth, attendees were shown two video recordings from May of an Indigenous man, William Farmer, being knocked down by a police car in Thornlie. The clips show eighteen-year-old Farmer being struck by the car and then handcuffed as he convulsed on the ground. The first recording was filmed by a primary-school girl, and the second by a teenage boy. The videos were uploaded to Facebook and resulted in a Senior Sergeant who was involved being stood down. It also prompted an ongoing internal police investigation.

Noongar man Mervyn Eades is Farmer’s uncle and CEO of Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation. He was responsible for bringing Copwatch to Perth, and said many Australians do not realize that they are legally permitted to film the police. Eades stated that “[i]f you’re in a public place and police are performing their duty in a public place, you are perfectly entitled to film them and you don’t have to stop.”

Eades told the New York Times that incidents such as these are not uncommon, and reflect a history of police abuse against Indigenous populations. However, it is often the officer’s word against the victim’s: “if it’s not on camera it never happened, our boys and girls are ‘making it up.’ It is the legacy of the white man’s legal system, but vision, a picture — it’s worth 1,000 words.”

Video technology is now cheaper and more accessible than ever before, and the initiative hopes to foster more accountability and transparency through video. Newhouse told The Guardian, “It’s generally accepted around the world that the use of cameras makes people behave better. That includes police.” In Australia, the laws that require police officers to wear body cameras vary across states. At the beginning of the month, Commissioner Chris Dawson of the Western Australia Police Force announced that body cameras would be required for all police officers in the state. After a successful trial in 2015, body-worn cameras were rolled out in NSW. Tasmania is currently testing a body camera project. However, they are not yet used all over the state, and in places like Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, officers can turn the cameras off at their discretion.

In Broken Hill, Barrier Local Area Commander Paul Smith told the ABC that any complaints against police officers were independently assessed and taken seriously no matter how minor the complaint. He said, “They vary at times in frequency but I can assure you that if a complaint is made about the conduct of a police officer that complaint is investigated thoroughly and it’s evidence based. If the evidence supports that matter being sustained, appropriate action is taken.”

Indigenous incarceration rates are currently thirteen times higher than those of white Australians, and earlier this month the NSW Bureau of Crime and Statistics found that there had been a 25% increase in Indigenous imprisonment in NSW since 2013. Over-policing in regional areas with high indigenous populations means they are far more likely to be targeted and unfairly imprisoned by police and mistreated in police custody. Often, Aboriginal Australians are imprisoned and held in custody for minor offences. A Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research report released in 2017 found that the number of Aboriginal people jailed for stalking offences was more than eight times higher in 2016 than 2012.

Darumbal woman and Queensland journalist Amy McQuire spoke to The Guardian about the historical reasons for the tense relationship between Aboriginal people and the police. “Over the course of my career in journalism, I have spoken to countless First Nations people who have been left deeply affected by police brutality and over-policing in their communities,” she said. She added that Copwatch will help to inform Aboriginal people of their rights and keep the police accountable. McQuire noted that”[t]here has never been one police officer convicted over a black death in custody and this is keenly felt across Aboriginal Australia.”

Copwatch was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, which has focused on police brutality against people of colour and the murders of young African-American men at the hands of police. Often, these instances of violence are caught on film using phones or dashboard cameras and uploaded to social media, where they garner worldwide attention and spark international outrage. Despite the deaths of more than 340 Aboriginal people in custody since 1991, an Australian articulation of the Black Lives Matter movement is yet to gain the same visibility.

Newhouse acknowledges that phones are simply a tool for fighting injustice, rather than a solution. However, Copwatch is providing a platform for Aboriginal Australians to share their experiences and give an insight into the way racism manifests itself in the country. The initiative has the potential to amplify the voices of Indigenous communities and highlight a systemic problem to which many Australians are not exposed.

The power of a video to create change was demonstrated last month during the inquest into the death of 26-year-old David Dungay Jr., who died in hospital after being violently restrained by five police officers. A video presented to courtroom showed Dungay screaming “I can’t breathe” twelve times to the officers on top of him, who continue to restrain him. The graphic footage was compelling evidence in the inquiry.

Copwatch has been inundated with requests from communities for workshops and this itself highlights the desire of Indigenous communities to form better relationships with the police. The profound impact such training could have on Aboriginal youth and their confidence in advocating for their rights is yet to be seen, but there is no doubt such an initiative will lead to positive change, not just for Indigenous communities, but for Australians nationwide.

Daisy D'Souza