Friday, 02 January 2015 09:54

The human rights legacy of Ken Lay

"@VEOHRC @VictoriaPolice UUUHHH???"

This was a fair question in response to my tweet from the Commission's Twitter account about Ken Lay’s resignation announcement earlier this week.

I said, "We thank @VictoriaPolice Commissioner Ken Lay for recognising the importance of equality and human rights for all Victorians." Let me explain why as Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner I am able to support Victoria Police’s program of change even though I hold the police force accountable for poor behavior.

It is important as we review Ken Lay’s legacy as Chief Commissioner that, in addition to the great advances he made for Victoria in addressing family violence, we also look to his impact on improving modern police practice in human rights and equality.

There are few organisations that impact all Victorians in the way our police do as they live their motto of "uphold the right" and keep our community safe. With 17,000 staff spread across our state, Victoria Police touches on all parts of our community as we go about our lives. Its service to us can both uphold and restrict our human rights. It is for this reason that we at the Commission keep a firm eye on Victoria Police. We have held Ken Lay accountable as we will the next Chief Commissioner.

It is not hard to recall occasions where the police have not met the standards expected by our diverse community: from the Tasty nightclub raids targeting gay patrons 20 years ago, to the Haile Michael litigation alleging racial profiling by police in the Flemington area, to racist stubby-holders targeting African and Aboriginal communities, to allegations of sexual misconduct and discrimination, to our 2014 Beyond Doubt report on the poor experience of people with disabilities reporting crime to police and, most recently, to the alarming coronial findings about police conduct.

These examples are of great concern to the Commission and to the community. They show that there is still much work to be done to change police culture and a reason for us to remain vigilant about police practices. We at the Commission have spoken out about these breaches, we have resolved complaints from the public, we have investigated police conduct and we have also provided guidance to police on how they can improve human rights outcomes. And Ken Lay, our Chief Commissioner, has taken responsibility, listened to the community and to the Commission, and then taken action for practical change.

It was almost exactly 12 months ago I attended the press conference accompanying the police’s action plan into racial profiling arising from the Haile Michael litigation. The whispers were that police would never admit that racial profiling had occurred within their ranks. Ken Lay did. I have seen him take decisions to terminate the employment of police who failed to meet the clear standards he articulated, unpopular decisions among police but consistent with community expectation.

The police are now implementing very clear commitments to eliminate racial profiling following a process of community consultation. In July Ken Lay accepted all recommendations in our Beyond Doubt report. In August Victoria Police apologised for its role in the Tasty nightclub raids. Victoria Police, together with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and our Commission, then piloted Report Racism, an independent third party reporting program for Aboriginal communities to more easily report racism by others, including the police.

More recently, the Chief Commissioner engaged our Commission to conduct an independent review into sex discrimination and sexual harassment, including predatory behavior in the force. This is not just a commitment to women in the ranks, but to all personnel who have experienced predatory behavior or felt powerless to intervene. Again, Ken Lay admitted the force had problems and needed our frank and fearless advice on what was going on and what could be done about it. These actions provide lessons for all leaders in our community, whether in the public, private or not-for-profit sector.

These individual actions were underpinned by a 10-year strategic vision founded on the recognition that a successful police force will embrace diversity within its ranks and better understand the diversity of our community. Ken Lay established a new Priority Communities Division to work on improving Victoria Police's record with diverse communities. Consistently he has used his voice to question, educate and challenge the police force and the community on the change needed to provide a safe community for everyone.

At the Commission we continue to have concerns about areas of police practice and accountability. We have concerns about the use of tasers by the force. We know police need to improve the human rights knowledge of frontline officers. We know that Victoria Police has a long way to go to build relationships of trust with Aboriginal communities but, as with other communities that have been over-policed, work has begun.

Under Ken Lay the leadership of the force has admitted poor conduct, taken responsibility and acted in each case. I call on the next Chief Commissioner to continue Ken Lay’s quiet legacy of progressing human rights and equality in a modern police force.

Kate Jenkins
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner

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