Protests stretched the thin blue line to breaking point

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Protests stretched the thin blue line to breaking point

By John Silvester

The thing about a uniform is it gives the wearer an identity and a sense of purpose. Without the Hells Angels logo, the man with the tatts is just a bogan on a bike. And people wear footy jumpers to show they are part of the team, although they have never laced up their boots.

It is the same with police. Their uniform is a message of solidarity, a message that you are not alone. That brother and sister officers you may have never met will come to your aid no matter the risk.

A police officer uses capsicum spray on a protester during Saturday’s anti-lockdown rally.

A police officer uses capsicum spray on a protester during Saturday’s anti-lockdown rally.Credit:Chris Hopkins

I have seen detectives have late-night punch-ons with each other only to have each other’s backs in early morning raids days later.

It is part of the code. The call “Police in Trouble” requires everything else to be dropped.

It is non-negotiable.

There can be no better example than that of Ron Fenton, who in 1984 was shot in the back of the head and lay dying next to his police car in a Beaumaris park. The gunman, Kai “Matty” Korhonen, had already murdered a security guard with a high-powered, military-grade rifle and blasted one police unit.

As Senior Constable Fenton and his partner, Senior Constable Paul Gilbert, checked the park, Korhonen opened fire, shooting the police car 27 times. Fenton, trying to escape from the car, was shot, shattering his skull. Gilbert, bloodied and blinded by shattered windscreen glass, pleaded for help: “Get an ambulance for my mate. I can hear him, but I can’t move.”

As the gunman was still on the loose, all police units were told to remain stationary, that is until Sergeant Mick Romeril took control, announcing: “We’re in a plain car, and we might head up to the injured member and put him in the car.”

Two cars and four cops went in, despite the risks, to rescue Fenton and Gilbert. Against all odds Fenton survived. At Fenton’s funeral 37 years later, I asked Romeril why he had mounted the rescue mission. He said that leaving a shot colleague on the ground was not an option.

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On Wednesday, it will be Police Remembrance Day to reflect on the officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty – the ultimate moment of solidarity.

It is a contract that binds police from the most senior to junior.

But earlier this week that bond became as frayed as the relationship between Paris and Canberra.

The reason? Last Saturday’s violent protest in Richmond.

Street police weren’t angry at the angry young men who went to fight cops. They were angry at their bosses who, they feel, left them swinging in the breeze.

While 50 police, who had just graduated days earlier, were called to the front line, the experienced Public Order Response Team was held back to protect the city.

Anti-authority protesters clash with Victoria police at an anti-lockdown rally in Richmond.

Anti-authority protesters clash with Victoria police at an anti-lockdown rally in Richmond. Credit:Chris Hopkins

Mainstream and social media has been filled with strong opinions. To some, the police went too hard against legitimate protesters and to others they were too soft on mindless thugs.

So let us go to the coalface and talk to someone who was there. His views were shared by thousands of colleagues reflected in hundreds of angry emails fired off to the Police Association from cops who felt abandoned.

Here is the view of one experienced street cop. It reflects the mood of many.

“I have never been so disillusioned and disappointed in my many years as a police officer as I was on Saturday. Simply put, we were betrayed by our own command. There was a leadership failure, plain and simple.

“As police, day after day we manage with limited resources and scrape by with limited staff. We understand that at times things happen beyond the control of supervisors, but this was a planned event and there was a deliberate choice by Command to throw their staff into the proverbial meat grinder.

“This pure obsession with protecting the CBD over the safety of their own employees left police members vulnerable in the City of Yarra with limited resources deployed there. Despite repeated requests over the radio for extra resources, PORT [Public Order Response Team anti-riot police] was left to sit in their vehicles blocks away.

“PORT was made impotent and ultimately did nothing, a deliberate choice by Command. Sector commanders and sergeants asked again and again for extra reinforcements. These were denied again and again by Command. Our members were those who paid the price.

“When the members were trampled at the [Richmond] cutting, multiple members set off their duress buttons and were screaming for help. A duress going off is a very rare event and I can assure you this is something that makes my blood run cold and makes me sick to my core.

“There is not a more helpless feeling in the world than hearing a call for help and knowing you are not able to assist. The Command’s response to this was to tell members to stop pressing their duress buttons.

“Members were left feeling scared and vulnerable in a situation where there was ample resourcing and the situation could have been avoided. It is pure luck that these officers who were betrayed by Command in this way have not received more significant injuries, and I would strongly encourage WorkSafe to investigate. Command threw some of our newest and most vulnerable members to the wolves.

“Police on the front line operate under high levels of scrutiny. We wear body-worn cameras, we are filmed and we are under constant review by those above us and members of the public. Close observation in a dichotomy where the same standard does not apply to Executive Command. They are yet to face their own staff with so much as an email or explanation. How are police meant to protect the public whilst in an environment where they are constantly undermined?

“Some have suggested they will never work a protest again. I, for one, will still turn up to stand on that thin blue line because that is what I swore an oath to do many years ago, as did many others and as will many others.

“The bare minimum is to have a Command who have our backs and support us. If we can’t count on that, what can we count on? We have a right to feel safe in the workplace that is being ignored by superior officers. These supervisors clearly no longer recall their days of general duty policing, and utterly lack the empathy to maintain strong leadership over those who still work the coal face.

“We don’t police in the corporate world of plush furnishings and nice office chairs; we are on the street in the thick of it.”

Experienced policeman

“We don’t police in the corporate world of plush furnishings and nice office chairs; we are on the street in the thick of it. For far too long has the front line been ignored, pillaged of members to bolster someone’s resume. Words are no longer enough and action must be taken at an executive level.

“PORT members that were there and were prevented from acting or being involved are traumatised. No one blames them, it was not their choice. I have actually never seen the lower ranks so united over a single issue such as this against management.

“None of us are talking about the protesters, we expected that behaviour from them. The blame is levelled firmly at management.”

Another message came from a relative. “My brother was one of the coppers hurt on Saturday. Dragged to the ground and kicked, punched and stomped on. He’s pretty sore today and wondering whether he will ever go back. Was furious at Command for not deploying the PORT. Reckons they were left high and dry.”

Senior police privately admit they got it horribly wrong on Saturday and needed to change tactics. The events this week in the heart of Melbourne forced their hand and left them no choice but to use PORT and other heavily armed units on the front line.

While cops in riot gear is a confronting image, they actually can de-escalate violence using the philosophy of “speak quietly and carry a big stick”.

A trained PORT member is less likely to lash out than an angry and frightened general duties cop. And angry men are less likely to go hands on with police armed with pepperball guns and stinger grenades.

Police clash with protestors at the Shrine on Wednesday. The occupation of the shirtless gentleman is unknown, although we note he is wearing Tradie underwear. Sadly, his refreshing can of Wild Boar bourbon and cola appears to have been collateral damage in the fracas.

Police clash with protestors at the Shrine on Wednesday. The occupation of the shirtless gentleman is unknown, although we note he is wearing Tradie underwear. Sadly, his refreshing can of Wild Boar bourbon and cola appears to have been collateral damage in the fracas.Credit:Jason South

The police strategy has changed from a couple of lines of stationary uniform police to what they call a “strong and agile” response.

While the use of riot police in the city has been entirely justified, we must guard against a power creep where this becomes the new normal. People have the right to mass protests, just not right now.

*We at the Department of Naked City love feedback, but sometimes even loyal readers need gentle guidance. Such as Vlad, who seems angry at me when his grudge should be against the English teachers who failed to pass on even the rudimentary rules of punctuation.

Here is Vlad’s vent. “So you like police violence against protesters? Why dont you then get up off your fat old arse and get out amongst it? you wont cos you;re a chicken shit.”

Surely, you mean. “Why dont [don’t] you then get off your old [,] fat [,] arse and get amongst it? you [You] wont [won’t] cos [because] you;re [you’re] chicken shit [manure?].”

Commas, dear boy. Commas.

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