Victoria’s anti-corruption watchdog has called for immediate action at Ballarat police station to reform the culture that lead to a high rate of complaints and alleged excessive use of force incidents.
It comes after officers were caught on security footage stripping an off-duty policewoman, who had been arrested, before kicking and stomping on her.
The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission said police should consider charges over the January 2015 incident, which was just one example of excessive force at the Ballarat station outlined in a report tabled in state parliament on Thursday.
Harrowing footage showed former police officer Yvonne Berry handcuffed, stripped of her underwear, stomped on, and kicked by police in a Ballarat cell.
IBAC made four recommendations, including human rights training for officers, and said the government should consider decriminalising public drunkenness, bringing it into line with every state but Queensland.
The investigation exposed “serious deficiencies” in the way this particular incident was handled, as well as concerns about the duty of care afforded to other vulnerable people at the police station.
The inquiry released damning findings, including significant missed opportunities to deal with ongoing, systemic issues at the police station.
IBAC commissioner Stephen O’Bryan said IBAC’s Operation Ross exposed a concerning casual disregard and “alarming mistreatment of a vulnerable woman” in police custody.
Complaints against Ballarat police officers are three times higher than similar sized stations across the state, IBAC found.
The investigation found serious shortcomings in Victoria Police policies and practices including oversight regarding promotions, interventions when an officer has multiple complaints, and compliance with the strip search policy and the Charter of Human Rights.
In May, the commission was told the scourge of the drug ice and Ballarat’s lower socio-economic status made the region one of the hardest to police.
One of Ballarat’s most senior officers, Inspector Bruce Thomas, suggested to the inquiry these problems played a role in the high number of workplace claims and alleged complaints against police officers.
He said at the time data collated by the Ethical Standards Command was flawed, particularly when comparing the city to others such as Bendigo, Warrnambool and Horsham.
Ballarat Superintendent Andrew Allen also refuted the proposition in the Victoria Police intelligence brief that Ballarat officers were more inclined to use ‘hands on’ force.
However, Mr O’Bryan said it was undeniable that Victoria Police data indicated there was reason to be concerned about the number and type of complaints against Ballarat uniformed officers, particularly sergeants.
He also said no evidence was found that senior managers instigated any proper monitoring of complaints statistics and performance of sergeants, or that a risk mitigation plan put in place was effective in reducing complaints.
Mr O’Bryan said it revealed broader systemic issues and missed opportunities by Victoria Police to address patterns of misconduct at the station.
“It is unfortunate the issues raised by complaints and evident in Victoria Police’s own data and reports, appear to have been not been recognised and addressed,” he said.
“The community rightly expects police officers to perform their duties and exercise their significant powers fairly, impartially and in accordance with the law.”
Victoria Police said it had lodged a prosecution brief with the Office of Public Prosecutions requesting advice on whether to lay charges against the officers involved in the incident with Ms Berry in custody.
A Victoria Police spokesman said police must be held accountable for their use of powers.
“We agree that the treatment of a vulnerable person in custody at the Ballarat Police Station in January 2015 did not meet the standards we expect from our members,” he said.
He said Victoria Police accepted the recommendations within the report and would commence work on how they are best implemented.
However, he said Victoria Police still refuted some of the statistical analysis within the report.
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