Justin Koonin, convenor of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby

Justin Koonin, convenor of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby

WITH the recent dropping of charges against gay activist Bryn Hutchinson, the relationship between the LGBTI community and NSW Police is once again under scrutiny. Hutchinson was found not guilty of assaulting police on the night of the 2013 Mardi Gras Parade.

While this case and also another involving teenager Jamie Jackson made the headlines, LGBTI organisations received dozens of complaints about police conduct over the Mardi Gras festival season that spanned issues including intimidation, homophobic language, conduct during drug searches at major parties, and also operations at Oxford St venues.

We should not discount the great strides that have been made on relations with police since the first Mardi Gras Parade, but at the same time we – and most importantly NSW Police themselves – need to understand that there are systemic issues that need to be addressed.

In response to the events of the Mardi Gras season and following repeated community consultations, four organisations (NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, ACON, and the Inner City Legal Centre) developed an advocacy paper documenting the changes we feel need to take place within NSW Police. The paper can be found here.

The paper contains 12 recommendations, such as the need for increased education and training on LGBTI issues within NSW Police, appropriate briefings for police from members of the LGBTI community before Mardi Gras, a more comprehensive and transparent assessment of the scale and risk of police operations at Mardi Gras, a review of procedures for drug searches and the use of drug detection dogs, and the need for an independent oversight body to handle police complaints.

The document was released publicly on November 14, and collectively the four organisations have held briefings with senior members of NSW Parliament (including Premier Barry O’Farrell) and police. We have also been working with GLBTI Corporate Affairs Spokesperson and Surry Hills LAC Commander Supt Tony Crandell over the months.

The response so far has largely been positive, and we expect an agreement between Mardi Gras and police shortly, covering operational aspects of the next season and incorporating many of our suggestions for improvement.

Some of our recommendations will require legislative change, and these will take longer to achieve. Our recommendation to end the use of drug dogs at events and venues, for example, would require changes to the Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act 2001, and this is unlikely to be something the NSW government will countenance at this stage.

Further, the establishment of an independent oversight body for NSW Police would be a significant change to the way police operate, and one affecting communities well beyond our own. We are awaiting the outcome of the review into Oversight of Police Critical Incidents currently being conducted by former federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland.

At the end of the day actions will talk louder than words. However, we, and the police, know that the litmus test will be whether Mardi Gras 2014 is a vast improvement on 2013.

We are hopeful, but we also need to remain vigilant. We know that you will keep us – and the police – accountable too.

If you do find yourself involved with police, it is important to know your rights. Our colleagues at the Inner City Legal Centre have produced a useful fact sheet detailing what police can and cannot do. Please take a few minutes to read it here.

This year the NSW GLRL celebrated 25 years of advocacy. We would like to thank all of the activists over this period who have fought for recognition of the dignity of our sexuality and the depth of our relationships. On a personal note, I would like to acknowledge the wonderful Lainie Arnold, who after two years in the role stepped down as co-convenor at our recent AGM.

Our community can be proud of the resilience we have shown, and the progress we have made this year. May 2014 be even better.

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