Research reports

Victoria Police handling of complaints made by Aboriginal people

Police misconduct and the investigation of complaints against police are issues that concern all Victorians. However, they have particular significance for Aboriginal people, who come into contact with police at a much higher rate than non-Aboriginal people.

Despite this, Aboriginal people make very few complaints about police. Aboriginal community organisations have highlighted a lack of confidence in the police complaints system, driven by concerns about inherent bias in the investigation process, lack of adequate evidence gathering, poor communication with complainants and low substantiation rates.

The system of police oversight in Victoria has in recent years been the subject of considerable discussion, criticism and recommendations for reform. Many in the community are concerned by the fact that most complaints about police are investigated by Victoria Police rather than by an independent body. The Victorian Government is currently conducting a systemic review of the system of police oversight in Victoria.

Against this backdrop, and as part of its oversight responsibilities, IBAC examined Victoria Police's handling of 41 complaints made by Aboriginal people and its oversight of 13 serious incidents involving an Aboriginal person.

As IBAC undertook this audit within the current system of police oversight in Victoria, our recommendations do not address wider community concerns about the overall structure of the Victorian police complaints system.

Nevertheless, this audit sheds new light on Victoria Police's handling of complaints by Aboriginal people and identifies concerning patterns in current processes. This report outlines IBAC's findings and makes recommendations to improve Victoria Police processes.

  • Hi, I'm Kylie Kilgour. I'm a Deputy Commissioner here at IBAC.

    And I'm Alistair McCulloch, Manager of IBAC's Prevention Policy and Research team.

    Today, we'll be talking about a piece of work IBAC recently undertook looking at how Victoria Police handles complaints made by Aboriginal people. This was undertaken as part of IBAC's important work oversighting Victoria Police.

    Kylie, can you give us a bit of a summary of IBAC's police oversight work?

    Well, we have a very busy police jurisdiction here in Victoria. We receive many thousands of complaints every year about Victoria Police. In fact, they're our number one public sector body in terms of the number of complaints that we receive.

    What we can do with those complaints is we can investigate some of them but we really only investigate the most serious and systemic matters that are brought to our attention. For about 40% of the matters that we receive, we refer them back to Victoria Police for them to investigate themselves; and then there's a a section of complaints that we receive where we dismiss them because they don't meet our threshold.

    But turning particularly to the matters that we do refer to Victoria Police, a really important way that we oversight Victoria Police's conduct (of their part of the police oversight system) is we do research reports like the one we're going to talk about today. Where we do a deep dive, basically, into how Victoria Police have managed complaints that have been referred to them for investigation to really make sure that those complaints have been handled appropriately.

    And a piece of work like this allows us to look at a large number of complaints and identify themes issues, trends and ways that Victoria Police can do better in terms of how they handle complaints made in future.

    Yeah, it's a really effective tool for us to really get a good body of evidence to be able to reflect back to Victoria Police about at a system level how well are they performing their part of the police oversight system.

    How Victoria Police handles complaints made by Aboriginal people is an area we've heard a lot of anecdotal complaints about and concerns about before isn't it?

    Yes, absolutely. And so by about 2018, IBAC had had a number of issues raised with it by community about how Victoria Police were handling complaints that they were making.

    So things like how people's indigenous status is or isn't accurately recorded in police information systems, that's been a long-standing issue in the justice system more broadly but in the context of police complaints, of course, it's very important Victoria Police record if an indigenous person has brought a complaint about their treatment by Victoria Police.

    Things like conflicts of interest, so allegations that you know officers who worked closely together were investigating each other.

    Things like use of force complaints always being unsubstantiated, so always the police officer's account of their use of force being preferred over the Aboriginal community member's account of how use of force may or may not have been appropriately used against them.

    Things like children and young people's treatment when they make complaints not being taken very seriously not even being interviewed as part of a complaint investigation.

    So all of those sorts of concerns had been flagged with IBAC and they triggered us to do an audit where we've taken about 50 complaints and notifications that were being managed by Victoria Police and we've really done a deep dive into how each of those investigations have been conducted and made a range of findings about serious shortcomings at a system level that we can identify about how Victoria Police have approached handling those complaints by Aboriginal people.

    Because if people don't trust the complaint system they're just not going to make complaints about Victoria Police and that then there's no way to hold police officers to account when they do do the wrong thing.

    Yeah, absolutely. It's really important that community, all community but especially Aboriginal people, have confidence that if they need to make a complaint about their treatment by Victoria Police that those complaints will be taken seriously, both by IBAC but also by Victoria Police.

    So what did the audit find?

    Unfortunately we did find that there are still issues about people's indigenous status isn't accurately recorded.

    We did find instances of conflicts of interest occurring, so investigations being conducted by people who really should have stepped out and said someone else would be a more independent investigator of this complaint.

    A lack of engagement with complainants, that's a real concern of mine. If someone's taken the trouble to make a complaint, a Victoria Police investigator should at least speak to that person because they will have important information and perspective to give about their experience.

    Things like children and young people not necessarily being taken seriously when they have made their complaints. In some instances as well, children and young people being roughly handled whilst in custody. Not having parents or guardians present with them when they are being interviewed, which you know these are just unlawful.

    So yeah, there's a whole bunch of issues that we've been able to surface through this audit report.

    And also a really low substantiation rate. So, despite use of force being the most complained about issue from Aboriginal people, none of those complaints are actually substantiated when Victoria Police investigated. That doesn't foster trust in the system.

    No, and particularly a lot of those files I noted were files where complainants were not spoken to. So how how could you really judge whether the use of force was appropriate or not if you haven't spoken to the person?

    So what we've done in response to those findings is make 10 recommendations to Victoria Police firstly to urgently reform its complaint system to make it simpler and clearer for complainants.

    We've also recommended that Victoria Police establish a dedicated complaints process for Aboriginal people to make sure those complaints are handled in a culturally appropriate way and a timely way.

    As you've touched on we've made recommendations to Victoria Police about how it treats Aboriginal young people and children in custody, and when those children and young people are being interviewed or arrested.

    And we've also made recommendations to Victoria Police about ongoing issues around conflicts of interest and human rights, which have been long-standing areas concerned for IBAC.

    Yes and it was really pleasing to see that Victoria Police have accepted all 10 of those recommendations and work is currently underway at their end to implement those recommendations. So we'll be working very closely with them on their implementation plan, making sure that they've got clear timeframes by which we can expect to see the changes that we've recommended. We'll be publishing copies of Victoria police's response on our website we'll continue to Monitor and continue to provide updates on our website about their implementation of these recommendations.

    And this piece of work is also really important for IBAC, so we'll be looking at the findings and the recommendations to see how we can improve our own processes and support Aboriginal people who might make complaints to IBAC about Victoria Police.

    Yes and we'll be out and about in community over the next you know six to 12 months talking about this audit report and really encouraging members of the Victorian Aboriginal community to let us know about any further concerns that anyone has about their treatment by Victoria Police.