By Meg Hill
Certain police powers expanded over the past decade have become increasingly concentrated in the CBD as their focus has shifted to protests.
Victoria Police were given the power to declare a “designated area”, within which they have expanded search and move-on powers, in a 2009 amendment to the Control of Weapons Act 1900.
Victoria Police and the Brumby Government justified this at the time with reference to an apparent rise in youth crime involving knives and other weapons.
Anthony Kelly, an executive officer at the Flemington and Kensington Legal Centre and the state-wide Police Accountability Project, said the searches produced few results.
He said the initial designated areas and searches, often located at suburban railway stations, found “very few weapons, despite comprehensive searches and metal detectors”.
“It became pretty clear that these gazetted areas and control of weapons powers were incredibly useful for protest events, where police have powers to search people without needing any reasonable suspicion,” he said.
As the CBD is the most popular location for protesters, this meant that the use of the provisions became CBD-focused.
Research by CBD News revealed that out of 11 uses of the provision in 2010, only one was located in the city. There was also very little overlap of any location that year – nine different suburbs were represented in the eleven instances.
By 2018, however, nine out of 14 instances had occurred in the CBD. Of those, at least five were called in response to protest events, while at least three others were used for popular public events.
The data also showed escalating tensions between far-right and left-wing groups in the city.
At least four of the 2018 instances targeted clashes between groups at events like the True Blue Crew’s nationalist march or the anti-feminist “March for Men”. Data from 2017 showed a similar trend.
The Act was expanded again in 2017 by the Andrews Government to include anti-masking provisions, which Mr Kelly said signified that “their main functionality had become protest control”.
The added provisions allowed police to force the removal of face coverings, even if they were used as protection against the potential use of pepper spray in the area.
Mr Kelly claimed that, alongside a move to protest control, the police had also increasingly used bias and racial profiling while exercising the powers.
“The police were very concerned about risks and accusations of racial profiling in 2009, so they did a whole range of things like pick every 10th person or randomise searches in a variety of ways,” he said.
“Now there is far less care or concern about how they’re being used in that way. They are more likely to target activists they treat as suspicious and therefore a whole range of biases can be used.”
“They can be used in a very discriminatory way in these sorts of protests.”
He said that this was also of concern where the provisions were used for public events like Moomba, White Night, or New Year celebrations.
“The risk is racial profiling, where police pick out for instance young African people from the crowd to search them, and they don’t need any reasonable suspicion.”
A Victoria Police spokesperson told CBD News the early weapons operations under the designated area legislation were located around transport hubs “where the approach included random searching of all commuters similar to aviation explosive detection testing conducted at airports”.
“As these locations were narrow designated areas with a higher volume of youth using the public transport system this was an appropriate approach,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said the Melbourne CBD operations “complement large events” and that where a declaration was made the Chief Commissioner must be satisfied “there is a likelihood that violence or disorder involving the use of weapons will occur in the area”.
“These laws are intended to respect the right of Victorians to engage in peaceful protest, whilst ensuring that police are able to deal with those who seek to disrupt peaceful protests and other events,” the spokesperson said.
“The consideration of human rights is a key part of our operation planning.”
“While the number of searches under the Control of Weapons Act has remained relatively steady in recent years, more weapons are being found. Our first priority is community safety.”
But Mr Kelly said that when the anti-masking provisions were added, a statement of compatibility was made with the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 that was “highly inadequate”.
“They usually say that the powers limit human rights but are justifiable for X reasons,” he said.
“Any power or legislation, even archaic ones, can be misused by police to shut down protests or to restrict or somehow deter protests, so legislators can easily allow or provide police powers that indirectly restrict our democratic rights, and this Control of Weapons Act is a good example of that.”