Brought to justice?

3 June 2021 | Posted In: #139 Winter 2021,

The 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. Alec Smart reports.

NSW Police released a statement on 4 May confirming an 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.

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. 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.

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 2GB radio 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,” Elliott said.

Despite the comments by Fuller and Elliot, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said that, after seeing the footage, “we still have a long way to go in our country” towards responsible policing. Mick Willing, NSW police assistant commissioner, also admitted he was “concerned”. On 2 June 2020, Willing hosted a press conference addressing the violent video, stating that “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.”

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, Karly Warner, chief executive officer of the 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.”