Covid-19 lockdown: Victoria police data sparks fears disadvantaged unfairly targeted

Michael McGowan, Andy Ball and Josh Taylor
Photograph: Speed Media/REX/Shutterstock

Justice advocates in Victoria believe disadvantaged groups may have been unfairly targeted by the state’s police during the enforcement of Covid-19 lockdown laws, after new data revealed areas with higher migrant populations and significant social housing stock have been among the most heavily enforced.

Victoria police released location data for the almost 6,000 fines issued for breaches of the state’s public health orders. The data showed there had been little correlation between enforcement of the orders and the spread of Covid-19 in the state.

Besides the city of Melbourne, which had far more fines recorded than any other council area in the state, an analysis of Covid-19 infection data showed many areas with a high number of cases had seen relatively low enforcement.

In Stonnington, an affluent area in Melbourne’s inner east, there were 82 fines issued by Victoria police to 17 May despite the area having the state’s second-highest number of cases. Banyule, in the city’s north-east, had the third-highest number of cases but had seen only 39 fines issued.

Yet some heavily targeted areas with higher migrant populations or greater social housing density had relatively few cases. Police in Greater Dandenong, which has a high migrant population, issued 333 fines to 17 May despite there being only 15 cases recorded. Yarra, which despite being relatively affluent has a high proportion of social housing, saw 287 fines while recording only 29 cases.

It has led to suggestions that areas with higher migrant and social housing populations have been unfairly targeted during the lockdown, and prompted calls for increased transparency around enforcement in the state.

“There needs to be some explanation as to why we’re seeing enhanced policing occurring in some of these areas,” said Daniel Nguyen, an advocacy co-ordinator with the Police Accountability Project run by Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre.

“If it’s not discrimination, OK, but let us know why. And this is the problem we’re seeing. Without clear data it’s difficult to dispel the valid concerns people do have that certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds are being more affected by these rules.”

Victoria police have issued almost 6,000 fines for breaches of public health orders related to Covid-19 since they were introduced in mid-March. An analysis by the Age newspaper last month found the state had issued fines at almost triple the rate of any other state or territory. At $1,652, the fines are also harsher than any other state in Australia.

At the same time, Victoria police have been less transparent around their use. While police in New South Wales have provided breakdowns of the location and reason for fines issued by police there, Victoria has up until now given scant detail about how the fines have been enforced.

According to Nguyen, many of the concerns around the enforcement of Covid-19 laws speak to broader issues around policing in the state.

“It’s similar in the sense that we don’t have some of this data around ethnicity, age, and demographics so we don’t have any sense of what’s occurring around stop and search enforcement, for example,” he said.

“The same sorts of issues we have with general day to day interactions between police and the public has only manifested itself in a broader context during Covid.”

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In a hearing of the Victorian parliament’s inquiry into the Covid-19 response, Victoria police commissioner Graham Ashton revealed at the time in mid-May, only 165 fines had been paid in full, while 337 had been cancelled, and another 437 were under review. 

Just 37 of the fines issued were issued to businesses. 

Ashton said the fines went through the same process as traffic fines when landing in Fines Victoria, to see if they would likely be overturned by court. 

“They have a good idea of where the court sets the bar, and so when they go through it they can then immediately see, ‘Oh, this particular fine’s not going to go through any sort of court review process satisfactorily’ where the courts would see where the officers placed the discretion.”

The police minister, Lisa Neville, said those fines were off the back of 70,000 calls to the police assistance line, and 48,000 compliance checks, but couldn’t say how many of the fines resulted from people calling the line. 

“So there would be a significant portion of them that have come from the police assistance line but not all of them, because some of them will be potentially people dobbing in people they do not like,” she said.

The service was reportedly getting about 600 calls per day.