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Source: Max Bender

Over-regulation and Surveillance of Young People

Contemporary advances in technology have provided citizens with the portable equipment, usually smart phones or other recording devices, to film and photograph police officers.  People who film and post incidents of police violence are commonly known as citizen journalists. Citizen journalism can be broadly defined as an ordinary person engaged in the recording, generating and dissemination of incidents or events, typically using smart-phones, which then allows issues of social injustice to be exposed to a larger audience.  It is typically coupled with calls for greater police accountability and justice for victims.

While recording of the police has increased with recent technological advances, it is evident that the limited empirical research existing has yet to examine its long-term impact on policing, police-community relations and accountability, particularly in relation to the policing of young people and other vulnerable social groups.

Recording Violent Interactions: George Floyd’s death in the US

Citizen journalism continues to shine a clear light on endemic discrimination and violence, as evidenced recently in the death of George Floyd in the US.  On 25 May, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, after a convenience store called 911. Some seventeen minutes from arrival of the police, Mr. Floyd was pinned beneath three police officers and unconscious. 

This incident was captured by several citizen journalists.  One such witness was Darnella Frazier, a teenager from Minneapolis who recorded the incident and posted her video online.  This allowed the entire world to see with their own eyes what had occurred. Darnella Frazier’s lawyer has commented that:

“If it wasn’t for her bravery, presence of mind, and steady hand, and her willingness to post the video on Facebook and share her trauma with the world, all four of those police officers would still be on the streets, possibly terrorizing other members of the community.”

Aboriginal families in Australia who have been bereaved by the deaths in custody of family members, state that the death of George Floyd should act as a poignant reminder of the systemic issues in Australia.

Captured on Camera in Australia

Drawing on Australia as a case study, it is evident that the relationship and trust levels between police officers and young people are often strained linked to the legacies of ‘over-policing’ in certain communities. Typically, the first formal interaction that young people have with the criminal justice system is contact with the police.  There is a wealth of critical criminological research in Australia, which demonstrates that these interactions have not been positive for many groups of young people. 

The over-regulation of particular groups of young people in public spaces by the police, such as young people from Indigenous communities, from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and young people experiencing homelessness continues to this day.  Findings from previous research highlights that the lack of trust in the police and fear of retaliation can often hinder people’s willingness to cooperate, which can therefore escalate into violence in some instances.

As part of a larger project analysing citizen journalism, accountability and young people’s experience of police, we can identify several examples of the violent interactions of police with both adults and young people.  These have been made publicly accessible usually by citizen journalists, via digital media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube and reported on by various online media outlets, such as The Guardian, The Daily Mail and Sydney Morning Herald.

The most significant recent example involves the arrest of a teenager which occurred in the inner Sydney suburb of Surry Hills. On Monday 1 June, a Sydney police officer threw a 16-year-old Indigenous boy to the ground by kicking his feet from beneath him, causing him to slam face-first into the ground; all evidence of this was captured via mobile phone footage and posted on social media.

In the video of the incident, the young person can be heard saying, “I’ll crack ya across the jaw, bro”, before the officer walked over to him to “restrain” him. After the video was released into the public domain, New South Wales’ Police Commissioner, Mick Fuller made a public statement stating that in his opinion this police officer simply “had a bad day”, which served to almost defend and rationalise this type of behaviour within the police force.

Reflecting on this incident, Redfern Legal Centre solicitor, Samantha Lee stated that, “Aboriginal young people in particular are disproportionately policed not only in New South Wales, but across Australia.” When evaluating the presence of police misconduct in Australia, Ms. Lee asserted that young Indigenous people “are a very vulnerable crowd and it’s time that this particular type of police practice is put to an end.”

The recording of violent interactions such as these examples, can ultimately have an impact on police legitimacy in the eyes of the public and brings to light what would have otherwise been hidden violence against young people. Despite this, New South Wales’ Police Central Metropolitan Region Commander Mick Willing stated that he was wary of the current environment and global anti-police protests and said he was also: “concerned about others who may use this footage to inflame it and turn it into something that it’s not.”

Lack of transparency

It is not only citizens who record police interactions with members of the public, the rise in the use of technologies by the police and other agencies to surveille young people has clearly played a role in eroding the boundaries between private and publicPolice body-worn cameras are one such contemporary example.

Allegations of police officers deactivating body-worn cameras as and when they decide to do so, editing footage prior to court and placing limits on access to imagery when requests are made by those making complaints or advocates on their behalf, highlight concerns surrounding transparency.  Yet, the Police Minister in Victoria continues to defend the use body-worn cameras by police asserting that: “We know the roll-out of body-worn cameras is already improving police and public interactions and leading to fewer complaints.”

The use of body-worn cameras and other recording devices, also extend to other branches of the criminal justice system, such as youth detention centres and prisons.  Victoria’s Commissioner for Children and Young People is reported as facing challenges in examining alleged violence perpetrated by prison guards against young people in the Grevillea Youth Justice Unit because: “body-worn cameras were not operative during the time”.

Need for independent complaints system

While citizen journalists and some media outlets do act as ‘watchdogs’ by exposing injustices, the lack of independent complaints systems and the lack of apparatus to enable systems and individuals to be held to account, is a huge under-addressed issue in Australia.

Traditionally in Australia, police complaints have been dealt with internally either by senior police officers or by specific departments within the police, therefore they have not been investigated by an independent office. A further issue raised by academic research is that access to justice following a police assault or misconduct, continues to represent an “unmet legal need”.  

While the judgment in Horvath v Australia clearly asserted that Australia is under an obligation to ensure that perpetrators of human rights violations, and specifically actions by police authorities, must be investigated and held to account through independent, effective and impartial investigations, little appears to have changed. 

Alarmingly, citizen journalists continue to expose further cases – with the incident in New South Wales occurring some six days after the recording of George Floyd’s death made global headlines. Citizen journalists, investigative journalists and activists are crucial in ensuring that these realities of police perpetrated violence are exposed.  Yet, the advances in communications technologies to mobilise civic action are but one part of a much larger push for much-needed change to systems and practices which perpetuate discrimination and deny transparency, accountability and justice, to those most affected.


Authors

Dr Faith Gordon is a socio-legal scholar and the Director of the Interdisciplinary International Youth Justice Network. She is an Associate Research Fellow at the Information Law & Policy Centre, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, London and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster.  Her work focuses on access to justice, criminal law, children’s rights, youth justice and AI and digital technologies and her research has been referred to by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Northern Ireland High Court and the UK Court of Appeal.

Hannah Klose is a Graduate Teaching Associate at the Faculty of Arts (Criminology) at Monash University in Victoria, Australia and has previously worked as a Research Assistant for the International Youth Justice Network. In 2019, Hannah graduated with First Class Honours in Criminology from Monash University in 2019, where her international comparative study was entitled, ‘The Effectiveness of a Public Health Approach to Respond to Youth Violence in Australia and the United Kingdom’. She has future plans to pursue her doctoral research in the area of youth justice, the digital space and children’s rights.