Statement on Policing of Sydney Lockdown

Legal Observers NSW is concerned about the policing of the Sydney lockdown beginning 26 June.

Heavy-handed policing poses a grave threat to our ability to effectively respond to the virus and infringes on basic human rights. This lockdown, the NSW government has focussed on policing vulnerable communities instead of communicating clear information and providing the economic and social support needed to endure loss of work and interruption to daily life. This has significantly undermined the effectiveness of the public health response and exposed communities to harm.

Despite some funding for workers and businesses, the economic support currently available leaves out people on income support. The below-poverty-line rate of income support means those receiving it are often reliant on casualised work, the future of which is uncertain under lockdown. Workers living in Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown and Liverpool LGAs have been disproportionately affected and have also had to respond to particularly confusing and frequently changing restrictions. These restrictions have been heavily policed from the moment of their introduction, with communities being given insufficient time and information to comply before being hit with fines and charges. 

Legal Observers NSW has been following the restrictions to provide community rights education resources in multiple languages. Restrictions have been changed hours after being announced; Public Health Orders not published until up to 10 hours after the press conference; insufficient resources dedicated to communicating the restrictions to culturally and linguistically diverse communities; and incorrect information still left on the Service NSW website over a week after we communicated the mistake to the department.

Meanwhile, police have followed residents to and from their homes, maintained constant helicopter surveillance over locked-down areas, searched individuals’ shopping for ‘non-essential items’ and issued infringement notices at a rate of up to 167 per day (although clear data on enforcement is not available). Only yesterday, over 100 residents of a unit block in Blacktown were placed under police guard. The police response has been condemned by community groups for carrying undertones of racialised targeting and placing already over-policed communities at risk. 

The choice of police-based public health policy has undoubtedly increased the feelings of frustration and unfairness that drive involvement in protests like the one on 24 July. We need a public health oriented response centered on working with communities to give them the support they need and to build the mutual trust and cooperation necessary to collectively tackle this crisis. The intimidation and fear caused by heavy-handed policing only undermines our capacity to do so. 

Trust and mutual cooperation are especially important to promote community understanding that restrictions on certain freedoms are sometimes necessary to protect the rights of others, the right to health and the absolute right to life. The current outbreak of the Delta variant in Sydney poses a serious risk to the health and safety of the community.  It necessitates some restrictions to reduce transmission. Disinformation about the risk and prevalence of the virus is a threat to our ability to contain the outbreak and properly care for our communities. The sentiments and messaging that play a part in fuelling protests like the one on 24 July show a concerning disregard for these facts. 

Regardless of the merit of the protest, Legal Observers NSW notes that several unnecessarily dangerous tactics were employed by police on 24 July as an extension of similar tactics we have observed at previous protests. 

The use of horses in crowded and noisy settings is a common police tactic which threatens the safety of protestors. Legal Observers NSW has seen police horses utilised at every protest we have observed, with horses previously being steered through crowds, at dangerously close distances to children and older people, next to heightened stimuli like nearby road traffic, less than a meter from a sleeping person on the ground, and close to several protestors engaged in afternoon prayers. We have seen horses begin to bolt in the middle of a crowd, with police narrowly maintaining control. Using horses to contain crowds in confined spaces also prevents social distancing and escalates tension.

This pattern of dangerous police horse use recurred on 24 July. Footage of a physical encounter between a protestor and a police horse shows several police horses in the middle of a loud and rapidly moving crowd, with little room between protestors and horses. The use of horses in such settings poses a risk of injury to the animals themselves and to protestors. Legal Observers NSW expresses concern about the continuation of this dangerous practice and believes that the use of horses in crowd control increases risks to public safety.

Footage of the protests also captures police violently pulling protestors to the ground, and up to five officers restraining a single protestor. Legal Observers NSW has previously seen police engage in violent and unnecessary physical altercations with protestors and expresses its ongoing concern about police use of force in protest situations.

Restrictions on movement and assembly are sometimes necessary to protect public health. Simultaneously, we maintain that public health is also seriously threatened by heavy-handed policing and by the use of punishment to control a pandemic. The policing of the July 24 protest employed several violent and dangerous practices that threaten public safety.

The prominence of policing in the NSW response to this outbreak has weakened our capacity to respond as a community, leaving behind already vulnerable groups. These impacts remind us that policing is not an appropriate measure for protecting public health.