Almost 300 people attended the forum at the NSW Teachers Federation Conference Centre in Surry Hills on March 19, where representatives from Mardi Gras, Sydney police and state Parliament took questions from an angry and often hostile crowd, and heard concerns about worsening relations between police and the gay community.
The meeting was organised by Sydney state MP Alex Greenwich in response to allegations of police brutality that have dogged this year’s Mardi Gras parade, including the recorded arrest of 18-year-old Jamie Jackson.
Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) co-convenor Karl Hand demanded to know why police were still pressing charges against Jackson and former CAAH co-convenor Bryn Hutchison, whose arrest after the parade on March 2 triggered a public outcry.
Hand claimed Hutchison was still unable to move his fingers, had severe bruising and was suffering “psychological torment” from his treatment by police.
Numerous audience members claimed to have experienced homophobic behaviour from police officers in the past, ranging from “invasive and humiliating” public strip searches to outright assault.
Surry Hills Local Area Commander Superintendent Tony Crandell said that police could not comment on any matters before the courts, but urged anyone who had experienced similar treatment to come forward and make an official complaint.
Police conduct on Oxford St at the end of the parade met with an especially hostile reception, with numerous speakers claiming police met any attempt by parade-goers to cross the road with verbal abuse and physical intimidation. After the march ended, a human chain of police officers blocked off Oxford St in order to allow council workers to clean the road.
Crandell admitted police “didn’t get it right” on the night, admitting he needs to “exert more influence” on the officers under his command.
Audience members spoke of a “culture of aggression” among police over the past 10 years, with claims the “vastly increased” number of officers policing the parade compared to the 1990s has led to relations between the gay community and police deteriorating.
Speakers criticised police targeting revellers for relatively minor infractions like offensive language and jaywalking, expressing confidence in Surry Hills police but raising concerns that “coppers outside the area” lacked the cultural awareness to police Mardi Gras effectively.
Approximately 1000 police officers from outside Surry Hills LAC were brought in for the Mardi Gras parade, with many coming from outer Sydney commands, including Parramatta and Fairfield.
Crandell, who assumed command of the non-local officers on the night, defended the increased police presence, claiming it was for the safety of the community.
“My thinking is whenever and wherever I can get extra cops, I’ll get them,” Crandell said.
No police representatives from outer Sydney commands were present at the forum.
The use of police sniffer dogs at major gay events also came under attack, with speakers claiming the dogs are highly inaccurate and that police were treating community members as “guilty until proven innocent,” using the dogs as a “pretext for routine abuse” including public strip searches.
Audience members cited figures from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics indicating that 80 per cent of the 14,000 searches initiated by police on the basis of sniffer dog behaviour in 2011 turned up no illegal drugs.
Dog Unit Acting Superintendent Mark Watters’ claim that dogs were present at major events to “minimise harm” to the community was met with laughter from the audience, many of whom became visibly angry at the mention of sniffer dogs.
ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill said drug detection dogs have been “an issue in the community for a long while” and that the gay community needed to “advocate for change at a policy level,” calling on the forum to contact their local MPs and the police and health ministers on the subject.
“Drug dogs at our events increase harm and scare people. At its heart we need to question this flawed policy approach,” Parkhill said.
Demands for an external inquiry into police conduct during Mardi Gras were reiterated, with audience members responding to police assurances of total accountability with shouts of “we don’t trust you”. An internal inquiry was announced shortly after the video of Jackson’s arrest went viral.
Greenwich claimed he was pushing for an independent body to conduct external inquiries and would “continue to work towards it” in state Parliament.
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras CEO Michael Rolik said Mardi Gras had received “about 50” complaints and urged people to complain through official channels.
“There’s an official complaints process that people need to adopt – we can’t do anything based on word-of-mouth evidence,” Rolik said.
For information on how to complain to police, community organisations or your local MP, head to mardigras.org.au/mardi-gras-policing-lodging-a-complaint/