New South Wales Police must use discretion in applying public health orders, warning that excessive fines and charges will only cause further harm to communities, said in a press release the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ ACT on Tuesday.
“Operation Stay at Home” was launched last Sunday 15 August by New South Wales Police to enforce Public Health Orders across the Australian estate.
The ALS has received multiple calls from Aboriginal people fined and charged for breaching the public health orders in towns including Brewarrina, Bourke, Walgett and Wilcannia as well as Sydney.
“We don’t have exact numbers yet, but I can confirm that several Aboriginal people have contacted us after receiving COVID fines in towns including Bourke, Brewarrina, Wilcannia, Walgett, as well as in Sydney. Said an ALS spokesperson to INW.
The ALS is disturbed by several reports of police inappropriately issuing fines and court attendance notices.
In one instance, a man with known mental health issues was stopped by police in a regional NSW town. Despite being known to wander and despite the local police command’s knowledge of the man’s mental illness, he was charged with breaching public health orders and will now have to attend court.
In another example, a teenage girl living in out-of-home care needed to be notified that she was a close contact of a COVID case. She became aware that police were looking for her and having previous negative experiences with authorities, she was deeply afraid she was going to be locked up. Her carers were eventually able to locate her and reassure her, and she is now isolating.
“COVID is a health issue, not a criminal matter. You can’t police your way out of a pandemic,” said Anthony Carter, Deputy CEO of the ALS.
“We need to protect our communities. The best way to do that is by caring for those who are vulnerable, not hanging hefty fines and prison time over people’s heads.”
The ALS is urging police officers to work in partnership with Aboriginal communities to ensure people’s needs are met, despite Police Commissioner Mick Fuller’s message last week for officers to “put community policing aside”.
“By ensuring community members are safe and housed, that they have access to food and healthcare, police will do a lot more to curtail COVID than indiscriminately handing out fines,” Mr Carter said.