Police order investigation after officers overrun at anti-lockdown protest

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Victoria Police is conducting a review into its handling of last weekend’s anti-lockdown protests following furious complaints from the police union when multiple officers were injured after being overrun during a botched crowd control operation in Richmond.

The Police Association is concerned police command left officers dangerously exposed without riot equipment and in insufficient numbers to confront hundreds of demonstrators at last Saturday’s so-called “Freedom Rally”.

Police lines were overrun in Richmond last SaturdayCredit:David Estcourt

Despite attempts to keep the crowd at bay using capsicum spray and batons, severely outnumbered officers were quickly overrun by the surging crowd.

The collapse of the thinly manned police line led to shocking scenes of officers being trampled and assaulted in a wild melee between the walls of a steep stone gorge at the eastern end of Victoria Street. One masked and hooded figure ranged freely among the isolated police officers, punching and tackling four with impunity before fleeing in the stampede.

Over the course of the day, 10 officers were injured – including six sent to hospital – and police staged 235 arrests.

On Sunday, union boss Wayne Gatt demanded an explanation from Chief Commissioner of Police Shane Patton for command’s apparent loss of control that allegedly endangered rank-and-file on the street.

Victoria Police and the union have declined to comment on the content of any discussion.

“Any event where a number of members receive serious injuries is deeply concerning to us and necessitates The Police Association entering discussions with Victoria Police command about member safety,” a Police Association spokesman said.

“The Police Association has done so in relation to this riot, with discussions and a subsequent review of the event ongoing.”

A Victoria Police spokesperson said the force had “spoken” to the union this week.

“We understand the concerns raised following the protests on September 18. Victoria Police continually review our operational response to protests as per standard procedure,” she said.

Protesters walking towards Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge.Credit:Jason South

Saturday’s confronting scenes were the first in a series of protests that police struggled to contain this week after thousands of anti-vaccination and anti-government demonstrators pledged to march “every day” in defiance of public health orders, shutting down swaths of the CBD and the West Gate Bridge.

Hundreds of people were arrested and police eventually deployed heavy-duty anti-riot and counter-terrorism measures before crowds were brought under control on Wednesday.

This included the first known use of the Bearcat armoured vehicle at a public gathering, as well as the deployment of specialist riot police firing tear gas, capsicum rounds and rubber bullets and the Special Operations Group (SOG), which is normally used to confront armed offenders and terrorists.

The crackdown also included a ban on media helicopters from flying over the CBD to live-stream the protest on Wednesday, which police claimed was helping protesters to avoid crowd control measures.

The unprecedented move – which came after media organisations refused to agree to a timing delay of one hour in airing the footage – proved to be futile when a court struck down the ban the following day.

Protests planned for Thursday and Friday have failed to materialise beyond small gatherings.

But it was the apparent failure of police command to protect its officers at the Saturday protests that is now the subject of an internal police inquiry in cooperation with the police union.

The bungled deployment has caused serious friction between the Police Association and Victoria Police command, according to police sources not authorised to speak on the record.

After 4000 protestors had flooded the CBD for an anti-lockdown protest in late August, Victoria Police took the unprecedented step of shutting down public transport and establishing roadblocks to cut off access to the city ahead of Saturday’s planned protests.

With anti-riot officers assembled at key points in the CBD to confront anyone who slipped through the net, protesters used Telegram and other social media platforms to mass at a fallback position in Richmond.

There, dozens of uniformed police officers without riot equipment were left to confront hundreds of demonstrators, some of whom pelted them with rocks and bottles as they pushed through the suburb.

The Police Association has also flagged concerns about Victoria Police’s wider strategy for containing the protests over the past week, which saw thousands of demonstrators range freely through the CBD, inner suburbs and halt traffic over the West Gate Bridge.

“There are matters of ongoing importance to our members in this environment that we will continue to discuss with Victoria Police. We will not outline them publicly, given the operational sensitivities associated with these matters,” the association said.

The anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne on Saturday.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Dr Terry Goldsworthy, a crimonologist and former police officer of 28 years, said police found themselves in an unusually and uncomfortably political position enforcing public health directions over the past 18 months.

“Law enforcement is having to enforce social regulations like almost never before. Social cohesion is starting to break down and the result is a greater risk to police and greater scrutiny on what they’re doing,” said Dr Goldsworthy, an associate professor at Bond University.

Police were clearly caught short in not proactively snuffing out protests on Tuesday that culminated in the march across the West Gate Bridge, he said. Their tactics became more effective after that.

Dr Goldsworthy was not critical of police’s use of weaponry and tactics to disperse crowds this week, outside of an incident on Saturday where an elderly lady was pepper sprayed by police as she laid on the ground.

”Every actions must be authorised, justified or excused by the law. Police are trained to respond to direct threats to you or someone else and that woman did not fall in that category,” Dr Goldsworthy said.

“Even in situations where officers feel like they’ve been hung out to to dry, it’s not a free for all where the rules don’t apply.”

Not since the Vietnam War and the labour unrest of the late 1990s has Melbourne witnessed the kind of sustained, unruly protests seen in the last week, as thousands of anti-vaccination and anti-government demonstrators marched through the city in defiance of public health orders.

The crowds, depending on the day, were composed of anti-government libertarians, anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown activists, conspiracy theorists and self-identified bikie club members, as well as construction workers and trade union members angered by the state government’s shuttering of their industry.

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