Police oversight during COVID-19

IBAC Deputy Commissioner Katie Miller

By Katie Miller, IBAC's Deputy Commissioner for independent police oversight

With the State of Emergency declaration, Victoria Police began to enforce restrictions set by the Chief Health Officer as part of the Victorian Government's response to COVID-19. These restrictions have determined where Victorians can go, the activities we can do and the people with whom we are permitted to associate with. 

IBAC anticipated there would be questions and concerns from the community about how the restrictions would be policed. As part of IBAC's prevention remit, we have been working with Victoria Police to ensure focus is maintained on preventing misconduct.


Preventing misconduct during COVID-19

Preventing misconduct requires an understanding of what police misconduct looks like, how and why police misconduct occurs, and importantly, what steps Victoria Police can take to prevent it occurring.

COVID-19 has been characterised by abnormality – our normal ways of working, living and socialising are the very things that put us at risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus. This lack of normality presents a unique challenge for IBAC's prevention function; what should be considered 'normal' policing during these abnormal times?

The circumstances of COVID-19 increases some of the risk factors IBAC has identified as contributing to police misconduct. The breadth of the COVID-19 restrictions and the speed at which they were introduced, along with subsequent changes, understandably creates some uncertainty about how they are applied to any given activity or circumstance.

The scale of changes produced by COVID-19 to our work and family lives means we are all experiencing some cognitive overload which can impair our decision-making functions. This risk of cognitive overload also applies to Victoria Police members who, like all other Victorians, are grappling with the changes to family and social life caused by COVID-19. The public health emergency presented by COVID-19 may increase the risk of rationalising misconduct on the basis that 'the ends justifies the means.'

To understand what police misconduct looks like in a time of COVID-19, we sought information from a range of sources. We have, and continue, to engage with other agencies in the integrity sector to understand what they are seeing and hearing. We talk to members of the community legal sector and monitor complaints for changes in the types of conduct alleged. We also monitor media reports to gain insights into how the community is experiencing COVID-19 policing and the concerns being raised.

Most significantly, we engaged early with Victoria Police to understand their strategy and approach to COVID-19 policing. In particular, how Victoria Police provides guidance to members across the state; how they manage the risks of inconsistent or inaccurate decision making, especially in the issuing of infringements; and how they deal with complaints related to COVID-19 policing. Through this engagement, we have inquired into and tested the systems put in place to detect and deal with police misconduct appropriately during COVID-19.

We have also asked questions about the communities more likely to be affected by COVID-19 policing, and Victoria Police's approach to collecting data and monitoring the COVID-19 policing operation. In turn, Victoria Police has provided us with data about infringements issued, reviewed and withdrawn, allowing us to monitor the data for trends or concerns, as well as inform future research and audits.

Exposing police misconduct during COVID-19

IBAC continues to receive and assess complaints and notifications about police misconduct. Interestingly, we have received fewer complaints about COVID-19 policing than originally anticipated.

Complaints have related to police conduct in enforcing COVID-19 restrictions, as well as complaints that police are not doing enough to enforce them. We assesses each complaint in accordance with usual procedures, as well as monitor these complaints as a separate event in order to understand the 'big picture' of COVID-19 policing.

Members of the public with concerns about COVID-19 policing are encouraged to contact IBAC through our online complaints form. In addition to assessing the appropriate course of action for each individual complaint, complaints provide useful information and intelligence about the community's experience and expectations about COVID-19 policing, which informs IBAC's engagement with Victoria Police.

For more information on policing during COVID-19, listen to the Live panel discussion: Overseeing the use of police powers during the COVID-19 pandemic podcast, featuring IBAC Deputy Commissioner Katie Miller, Victoria Police Commissioner Shane Patton, and Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton.