Criminal charges for ‘bad day’ cop who injured Aboriginal teenager

Stills from mobile phone footage of the alleged assault. Image: National Indigenous Times (nit.com.au).

By ALEC SMART

A NSW police officer who was filmed slamming an Aboriginal teenager face-first to the ground in Surry Hills in June 2020 has been charged with two counts of assault.

NSW Police released a statement on 4 May confirming the as-yet unnamed male constable was issued with a court attendance notice to answer charges of Assault Occasioning Actual Bodily Harm and Common Assault. Furthermore, 11 months after the incident, the officer’s ongoing employment was now “under review”.

The officer is due to appear before Downing Centre Local Court in central Sydney on Thursday, 24 June, 2021.

The constable, from Surry Hills Command, was filmed with a mobile phone on 1 June 2020 reacting violently to backchat from a 16-year-old Aboriginal youth. The exchange, which took place around 5.30pm, ended with the officer employing a “leg-sweep” and kicking the boy’s feet out from under him, causing the victim to land face-first on a brick-paved footpath.

The boy sustained chipped teeth, cuts to his knee, face and elbow, and a bruised shoulder. He was taken to St Vincent’s Hospital afterwards for X-rays to check for possible fractures.

Footpath film footage

The disturbing mobile phone footage of the original incident, which was posted to the internet and shared widely on social and mainstream media, took place at Ward Park adjacent to the Northcott Estate high-rise social housing complex in Surry Hills, central Sydney.

The footage began during a discussion between youths and police on whether police officers should use swear words while on duty. The altercation involved three police officers – one male and two females – and at least three Indigenous youths (including the one recording the interaction on his phone).

In the video, the male officer (the Surry Hills constable since charged with assault) denies an accusation from the 16-year-old that he’d been swearing. He challenges the lad, saying: “I didn’t say that at all mate, you need to open up your ears!”

The boy responds: “What? I heard you from over here, I don’t need to open up my ears. I’ll crack your f**king jaw bro!”

The constable then apparently loses his temper, and marches over to the boy, demanding, “What was that? What was that? Turn around.”

The policeman quickly spins the boy around and clasps his hands behind his back, and although the boy doesn’t resist, the officer suddenly uses his boot to kick the teenager’s legs sideways. The teen immediately falls forward and lands face-first on the footpath.

The victim is heard moaning in pain while the two female officers assist in restraining him face-down on the ground. Meanwhile, the boy’s friends can be heard remonstrating with the male officer who kicked him over.

A 2 June, 2020 ABC-TV news report featuring footage of the incident. Video: ABC News (Australia)/YouTube.

Angry cop was “having a bad day”

NSW Police responded to the public backlash after the video went viral, declaring on 2 June, 2020 that the Surry Hills officer who was filmed face-slamming the Indigenous teenager into the ground had been placed on ‘restricted duties’. Police Professional Standards announced they were launching an investigation into the incident.

Despite this, and the damage to relations between police and the Indigenous community, senior commanders refused to condemn his actions.

NSW’s highest-ranked officer, Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, insisted the constable’s actions were justified because he was “having a bad day”.

Fuller, who controversially defended NSW Police policy of strip-searching children without parental supervision – including the unethical targeting of girls under 18 made to undress and squat for intimate inspections – told Sydney’s Radio 2GB on 3 June that his officer was justified.

“The fact that this officer doesn’t have a chequered history and he has been in [the police] for three-and-a-half years, if the complaint is sustained against him, you would have to say he has had a bad day,” Commissioner Fuller said.

“I am sure most of the community wouldn’t want to see someone who has made a mistake sacked after making such a commitment to the community.”

NSW Police Minister David Elliott, also downplaying the dangerous ‘leg-sweep’ employed by the police constable, said he was “horrified” by the language the Aboriginal teenager used.

“I was just as disturbed about the threat from a young person to physically assault a police officer as I was with the response from the police officer,” Mr Elliott said.

Despite the comments by Mr Fuller and Mr Elliot, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said, after seeing the footage, that “we still have a long way to go in our country” towards responsible policing.

Mick Willing, NSW Police Assistant Commissioner and Central Metropolitan Region Commander, also admitted he was “concerned”.

Frame from mobile phone footage showing the unnamed Surry Hills constable who has been charged with two counts of assault.

Family reaction

On 2 June, 2020 Commander Willing hosted a press conference addressing the violent video, stating: “As you’re all aware, the footage has been circulated widely by social and mainstream media. As a result of that it’s come to the attention of myself as the region commander and others, and an independent investigation has been commenced by our Professional Standards Command. That investigation will be conducted thoroughly and openly.”

Lawyer George Newhouse, founder of the National Justice Project human rights legal service, said: “The family want charges to be laid against this officer. Not an investigation where police are investigating police.

“If this was anyone else, you or me or any member of the original community, we would be charged and let the court decide.”

On 3 June, two days after the face-flinging incident, the victim’s family – who can’t be named for legal reasons – held a press conference and demanded the constable involved be charged with assault. They also called for an end to “police investigating police”.

“Because we’re Aboriginal, we see a lot of this all the time. We experience extra obligations to answer to people: who we are, where we’re going, what we’re doing, when we’re just walking along.”

The injured lad’s sister told the media, “When you see the way these people [police] treat our people, it is frightening… This highlights the treatment our people have been experiencing for years when there aren’t any cameras around … The frustration of being constantly targeted by police is heavy and not being able to place your trust in people who are employed to protect you is sad and worrisome. It comes increasingly hard to feel safe when the police do not have a good connection to their communities.”

The family of the teen speak to ABC-TV’s 7.30. Video: ABC News (Australia)/YouTube.

Allegations of police brutality

Also on 3 June, 2020, in the wake of the police suffocation death of George Floyd in Minnesota the previous week, then federal Attorney General Christian Porter warned against drawing parallels between the USA’s and Australia’s treatment of their black population.

Porter (since demoted amidst denials of a rape allegation) said: “We shouldn’t mistake specific problems of grotesque police brutality in America – literally a world away – with our own problems.”

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was later found guilty of both the murder and manslaughter of Floyd.

However, there have been at least 444 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody in the almost three decades since the Royal Commission examined the problem in 1991, despite 339 recommendations to remedy the situation.

Furthermore, 56 per cent of the Indigenous people who have died in custody since 2008 were on remand or in protective custody and not convicted of a crime.

Several of these custodial deaths have been attributed to alleged police brutality.

The family of Patrick Fisher blamed his February 2018 death on police after Fisher attempted to evade arrest by clambering over a 13th floor balcony in a Waterloo public high-rise housing estate during an unsuccessful attempt to reach an apartment below. They claimed he probably chose the highly dangerous balcony option, from where he fell to his death, to avoid getting “bashed” by police when taken into custody.

In another Indigenous death involving NSW Police officers in Waterloo, on 14 February, 2004, TJ Hickey suffered a catastrophic collision with a spiked steel fence in suspicious circumstances after a police pursuit. 

The 17-year-old Aboriginal was riding his bicycle back from Redfern to Waterloo when two NSW police officers, engaged in an unrelated operation to catch a handbag thief in the vicinity of Redfern Station, decided instead to pursue young TJ in their vehicle.

According to some accounts, strongly refuted by NSW Police, TJ was hit by a police vehicle adjacent to Turanga tower, catapulting him onto the steel fence, where he landed on his back.

Curiously, the primary officer who initiated the pursuit of TJ, Constable Michael Hollingsworth – since promoted to Senior Constable and awarded the National Police Medal and the Diligent and Ethical Service Medal – refused to give evidence at the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into TJ’s death, on the grounds that he might incriminate himself.

More recently, on 30 April 2021, a coroner ruled an Aboriginal woman had been treated inhumanely by police while in custody in Western Australia in August 2014.

A professional misconduct finding was made by the Medical Board of Australia against doctor Vafa Naderi who failed to properly examine her before she died. 22-year-old Ms Dhu (first name withheld for cultural reasons) was arrested for unpaid fines totalling $3622 and detained at South Hedland Police Station.

Whilst under arrest, she was taken three times over three days to Hedland Health Campus for treatment for staphylococcal septicaemia and pneumonia after an infection in her fractured ribs – a result of domestic violence by her partner – spread to her lungs.

After failing to take her temperature, overlooking her high heart rate, nor ordering an X-ray on her second visit, Dr Naderi declared Ms Dhu fit for custody, blaming her symptoms on “behavioural issues” and “withdrawal from drugs”. She died the following day.

Western Australia’s State Administrative Tribunal fined Dr Naderi $30,000 plus costs, payable to the medical board, after ordering him to write a report explaining how he had learned from his mistakes, allowed him to continue practising.

Ms Dhu’s grandmother Carol Roe told ABC-TV: “The family are appalled that a fine and a reprimand imposed on a medical practitioner is the price paid for letting a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, who had been a victim of domestic violence, die of neglect in police custody, without providing care or treatment.”

Fairness and justice

After NSW Police revealed on 4 May, 2021 that the Surry Hills constable responsible for flinging the Aboriginal boy on his face was now facing two charges of assault, Kelly Warner, Chief Executive Officer of Aboriginal Legal Service NSW and ACT, said: “You can’t have justice without accountability. Police should be subject to the same laws that apply to the community. We welcome this step towards justice..

“We are routinely harassed, stopped, questioned, and searched by police for no reason. We are refused bail at higher rates and disproportionately pursued through the courts for minor offences.”

A spokesperson for the boy’s family said in a public statement that they were “happy with the way this is now proceeding, legally and fairly”.

“We know we cannot discuss the details of this case now that charges have been laid. We as a family cry and share the grief and pain of the families who have had the lives of their young Black sons and daughters taken away from them violently by police and custodial authorities.

“Aboriginal people across Australia have been unfairly treated, racially vilified, and systematically oppressed since 1788. We look forward to the law being applied with fairness and justice.”

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