Police apology for Indigenous harm must 'bring change'

·3-min read

Indigenous Victorians have been offered an unreserved apology for historic and ongoing harm inflicted by police as the state's top cop was grilled at a truth-telling inquiry.

Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton made a series of mea culpas about police treatment of Indigenous people when facing the Yoorrook Justice Commission on Monday.

His apology included acceptance the force had caused and contributed to trauma for Aboriginal families since it was first handed powers to remove "neglected" children in 1864.

"I know Victoria Police has caused harm in the past and unfortunately continues to do so in the present," Mr Patton told the inquiry during his more than four-hour appearance.

It is the first apology of its kind made by Victoria Police.

Mr Patton does not believe the force is intentionally racist but recognised policing of Indigenous people is influenced by systemic or structural racism and the uniform is a "symbol of fear".

Systemic racism and discriminatory action in the force have gone "undetected, unchecked and unpunished", causing significant harm across generations of Indigenous families.

In the past five years, racism-related complaints have been made against 175 Victorian officers.

One officer was dismissed, another was transferred and one or two received good behaviour bonds, Mr Patton said.

He denied Victoria Police had a practice of protecting the wrongdoing of officers but apologised for past instances where members of the force were untruthful or attempted a cover-up.

A training document, deemed unacceptable by Mr Patton, claimed officers heard stories from some stolen generation members suggesting it was the "best thing" that happened to them.

It pondered the best way for officers to interact with Indigenous people to ensure they have a positive experience "that helps to change perception of police as the reason for the stolen generation".

Commission chair Eleanor Bourke said the force's actions during the past 170 years had been perpetuated with the intent of making First Nations people "disappear".

"Your apology must bring real change," she told Mr Patton.

A shield was presented to hang in Mr Patton's office as a reminder to him and future police chiefs of his promise to protect Indigenous people and respect their culture and human rights.

Yoorrook is investigating past and ongoing injustices against Victoria's First Nations people and has repeatedly raised concerns about the force's oversight processes and the lack of accountability.

In his 90-minute testimony, Police Minister Anthony Carbines said he was not aware of any officers being charged, reprimanded or investigated over 33 Indigenous deaths in custody in Victoria since the 1991 national royal commission.

Mr Carbines told the commission the police-operated complaints system must change as Indigenous people have "given up" on it over conflict of interest concerns.

Tommy Lovett's family withdrew a complaint over his 2016 assault when he was 16 years old, after learning assigned investigators worked at the same police station as the officers involved.

Mr Patton is open to the Victorian government pursuing reforms to increase independent oversight of police complaints after recently shifting his stance, conceding the Indigenous community will never have confidence in its impartiality.

Counsel assisting Tony McAvoy said many Aboriginal people saw police as the enemy, are racially profiled and never let off with a warning.

While accepting those statements, Mr Carbines believes Victoria Police can change but could not provide a timeline or point to a specific strategy to eliminate or reduce discrimination towards Indigenous people.

The commission is expected to hear from Department of Justice and Community Safety representatives on Wednesday.