Examining racial profiling by police through COVID-19 lockdown fines

Inner Melbourne Community Legal collaborated with experts to investigate how race impacted issuance of police COVID-19 fines.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Over the course of Victoria’s 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns, lawyers working on public health order breaches reported a high frequency of fines in racialised communities.

With funding from our Knowledge Grant program, Inner Melbourne Community Legal (IMCL) collaborated with a range of experts and the local community to investigate whether police COVID-19 fines were consistent with racial profiling.

Dr Tamar Hopkins, a racial profiling expert and the founding lawyer of the Police Accountability Project at Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre, led the project.  

A steering committee of representatives from key organisations and community services was appointed to support, guide, and oversee the project’s progress. Chaired by Michelle Reynolds from IMCL, the committee included Alex Walters from Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, Tiffany Overall from YouthLaw, and Ilo Diaz from the Police Accountability Project. Dr Gordana Popovic from UNSW Statistics Central was the statistical consultant for this project.

Connecting data with community stories to investigate racial profiling

The project obtained data from 37,405 COVID-19 fines issued by Victoria Police in 2020 via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. A further application for the release of data was made to VCAT when Victoria Police failed to respond in the legislated timeframe.

This data was analysed by various measures of racial profiling, such as frequency of fines in local government areas and nature of fine issuance (for example, whether police questioning was required or it was a visible offence like not wearing a mask).

The project encountered challenges with limitations to the data set (in that it only included people who were issued fines, not all those who were stopped and questioned in relation to offence), and with missing or inaccurate data from Victoria Police. It found that Victoria Police continued to use old racial appearance codes, rather than the codes updated in 2018 and that Victoria Police members failed to complete the ethnic appearance code field in nearly 1 in 4 of fines issued. These inaccuracies suggest flaws in Victorian Police data practices, which may apply more generally to the issuing of fines and collection of racial appearance data outside COVID-19 fines.

For first-hand experiences from the community, IMCL published an online survey. IMCL reported many of the respondents were disturbed by the way they were treated by police and have included several of their stories in their report.

Evidence of racial profiling and disproportionality

The project report Policing COVID-19 in Victoria: Exploring the impact of perceived race in the issuing of COVID-19 fines during 2020, found African and Middle Eastern people were 4.5 times as likely to be issued a COVID-19 fine than expected for their population size. First Nations people were 2.5 times more likely to receive a COVID-19 fine than expected for their population size.

The report also found that people of African and Middle Eastern appearance were 5.4 per cent more likely to be issued a fine for an offence that required questioning such as. being outside 5-kilometre radius from their home) than white people. White people were more likely to be fined for clearly visible offences (such as failing to wear a face mask). This was evidence of racial profiling by Victoria Police.

For every 10 per cent increase in non-English speakers at home in a local government area, the report found that the rate of COVID fines increased by 11 per cent.

"The report proved what black, brown and First Nations communities have known for years.  Our communities will be targeted the most when police are given extra powers."

Ilo Diaz, Advocacy Coordinator at IMCL’s Police Accountability Project

Using research to educate lawyers and communities to ensure fair policing

The project provided an opportunity for IMCL staff to expand their skills and knowledge of police powers, practices and racial profiling, including participation in Police Powers and Racial Profiling as Criminal Defence Training run by Dr Tamar Hopkins, which was also offered to other community lawyers working in this space.

IMCL put forward 20 recommendations to several government bodies, including the Victorian Government, Victoria Police, and the Australian Census addressing data collection, discrimination, and racial profiling to ensure fair and equal policing for all Victorians. These recommendations include:

  • mandating the collection and public reporting of data on police interactions
  • enforcing the use of updated ethnic appearance codes
  • creating an independent Police Ombudsman

Additionally, IMCL proposed increased funding for community legal centres, Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, and alternatives to police such as community safety, health, and well-being patrols.

IMCL has noted their intention to collaborate closely with marginalised communities to ensure that the recommendations from the report translate into concrete actions that address racial profiling effectively. The research report provides advice on how to lodge a successful FOI with Victoria police, including an example letter.

The project's outcomes have not only informed IMCL’s own practice but have the potential to strengthen the capacity of legal assistance services to run racial profiling as criminal defence against the use of police powers.

More about Inner Melbourne Community Legal

Inner Melbourne Community Legal is a not-for-profit community organisation that provides free legal assistance to disadvantaged people in the City of Melbourne area. Their mission is to promote social justice and the health and well-being of the community through advocacy, education, and casework.

Pictured: Racial profiling expert Dr Tamar Hopkins who led Inner Melbourne Community Legal's project.

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