A leading human rights lawyer is helping spearhead a Black Lives Matter-inspired campaign to help Aboriginal communities fight alleged police harassment, teaching people about how to film and share video of incidents.
Copwatch has been developed by the National Justice Project, as a response to reports and claims of "over-policing and police abuses in Aboriginal communities". The program aims to provide training on using mobile phone cameras to record alleged police indiscretions, harassment and violence in communities, with the plan to upload that footage to social media. Copwatch, to be delivered by lawyers and media professionals, would also provide legal training and advice to participants.
Indigenous imprisonment rates are far higher than that of the general population. The Bureau of Statistics reported that, as of June 30 last year, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait imprisonment rate was 2346 per 100,000 population, compared to 154 per 100,000 for the non-Indigenous population. Just this week, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research reported a "25 per cent increase in Indigenous imprisonment in NSW since 2013". Indigenous advocates claim their communities come in for greater scrutiny from police than the general population, especially in rural areas.
"The Aboriginal and Torres Strait imprisonment rate... when age standardised, was 13 times greater than the age standardised imprisonment rate for non-Indigenous persons (2,039 compared to 163)," the ABS said.
Leading human rights lawyer George Newhouse told HuffPost Australia the Copwatch campaign was influenced by Black Lives Matter, an American movement which campaigns against violence toward African-American communities, which has also encouraged people in targeted communities to film their interactions with authorities. Several of these videos have gone viral and been used in criminal court cases, including perhaps most famously that of Philando Castile, whose shooting by police was captured on video and streamed on Facebook by his partner.
"What we're trying to achieve is more effective policing, safer Aboriginal communities that work functionally with their local police force, lower incarceration rates for Aboriginal people, and ultimately the ability of Aboriginal people to tell their own story," Newhouse said.
"Overseas experience shows both police and community members behave better when they're under scrutiny, full stop. We think there will be better behaviour all round, and that the relationship between police ad communities will improve. That may ultimately end up with lower incarceration rates."
Experts say it is impossible to put high Indigenous incarceration rates down to one specific factor, whether over-policing or higher rates of crime in those areas. Tanya Mitchell, a criminal law lecturer at the University of Sydney who has worked with Indigenous and rural legal services, says it is "the million dollar question" for researchers.
"There aren't any definitive answers, but an answer could be the combination of these things. Some communities may be impacted by the legacy of colonisation more than others. Over-policing is also a factor," she told HuffPost Australia.
"Getting an answer of which one or the other is the cause, is maybe not possible."
The Copwatch campaign is currently crowdfunding to raise $50,000 for equipment and training costs -- as of publication time, it has raised $23,000 in just a few days. Newhouse said the trigger for Copwatch was the death of teenager Elijah Doughty in Kalgoorlie last year. The 14-year-old was allegedly run down by a local motorist while riding a motorbike police believe was stolen, which led to violence and rioting in the town.
"We received a number of calls from community members after a riot that involved attacks on police vehicles and the local court house. We examined ways of releasing the tension and frustration the community was a feeling as a result of over-policing and discrimination in the town," Newhouse said.
"We wanted to empower community members to have their voices heard and to highlight bad police practises through the use of cameras and citizen journalism rather than through taking the law into their own hands. The project is about empowering people to tell their own stories, use social media to get the message out, and explaining their legal rights and obligations."
In a statement, NSW Police declined to comment specifically on Copwatch but said citizens had the right to film in public.
"Members of the community are entitled to film in a public place and the NSW Police Force respects this right," police told HuffPost Australia.
"Our priority is always the safety of the community; however, if anyone feels they have been subject to inappropriate conduct, there are internal and external avenues to lodge a complaint."
Marwari man Des Jones is the head of the Murdi Paaki regional assembly, an organisation representing the interests of Indigenous people in 16 communities across western NSW. He said he looked forward to the program rolling out across his region.
"It's about accountability on the ground. Police provide services to the community. The services have changed, and it's getting to a point where there's so much abuse of power, fabrication, intimidation of communities," Jones claimed to HuffPost Australia.
"Copwatch is a part of our defence mechanism for the community, to show the bad behaviour. It's all about gathering evidence, alerting communities to their rights, and using this information and tools. It gives our people comfort to know this behaviour is not acceptable in the community. We don't accept this."
"We hear a lot about zero tolerance on crime, Aboriginal peoples need to start having zero tolerance on racism entrenched in government, non-government and industry. We need to use all legal and political avenues available to expose and eradicate racism and abuse, and to bring perpetrators to justice."
Jones claimed to be aware of numerous reports across his region of "police intimidation, provocation, harassment and manhandling", which he said the Copwatch training and cameras would help address.
"We've had cases where someone was bashed by police, and the people recording it had their cameras confiscated. People are saying young people did certain things with no evidence. Harassment, intimidating certain members of the community constantly to get a reaction. It needs to be captured on some recording device," he said.
"We're looking predominantly at [communities] with the highest level of issues. We'll be talking to communities about it in the next few weeks, then they can put their hands up and we can do programs there."
Newhouse said the initial programs would be a small trial, with plans for wider rollout later.
"Initially we'll be speaking to about three or communities around Australia. We'll be only working with those communities that ask for assistance and training, and we're hoping after the trial, we'll be able to roll it out to all communities who think it's worthwhile," he said.
"The communities we're speaking to are afraid and do not want to be identified, but they're clearly ones having dysfunctional relationships with their local police forces. If the police had good relationships with their communities, there would be no need for our services. I hope relationships improve to the point where there is no need for our work."
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