Police violence and the Retro Three

On June 20, 2009, in Melbourne, Sam King was riding home on his bicycle. When trying to pass the Retro Cafe in Fitzroy, he was pulled off his bike, bashed, handcuffed and jailed. Two of the 25 witnesses to the assault were themselves bashed for questioning the police perpetrators. One was also jailed. The other, an 18-year-old woman, was hospitalised with face wounds. All three were charged with assaulting police. They are known as the Retro Three.

The following is based on a speech by King to a public meeting, “Police Violence and the Retro Three”, held at Melbourne’s New International Bookshop on August 18. The other speakers were Tamar Hopkins, the principal solicitor at the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, and Meghan Fitzgerald, a solicitor specialising in cases of police violence.


I have been a political activist for 15 years, but today’s meeting is not about a political action. I was simply riding home when I witnessed a man being pinned face down on the bitumen road, blocking my path ahead. He was then handcuffed by the two police who had their knees in his neck and back. The man was hauled to his feet and walked directly towards me along the bike path, next to the police wagon. Stopping immediately in front of my bike, Constable David Branov barked the order: “Get out of the way”. Having nowhere to go, I said, “I’m in the bike lane”. Branov again yelled before they easily walked around me.

I walked my bike onto the footpath and joined a crowd of around 25 people who were watching or complaining about the violent arrest that had just taken place. I stood silently watching from the back of the crowd, when Branov and another officer approached me demanding my name. Believing it to be a legal right, I asked Branov his name. He refused it and told me if I didn’t provide my name I’d be arrested. I asked “What for?”. Branov again threatened to arrest me. I told him I hadn’t done anything. The pair then grabbed me on both sides, dragged me off my bike, frog-marched me to the back of a police wagon and attempted to push me down on the road.

Branov began to hit me over the head with my own bicycle helmet. He then repeatedly hit me several times in the face with his fist. Police admit both these things in their own statements. After the first blow to the face, I stopped all resistance. Independent witnesses testify Branov continued beating me on the ground. That was in front of 25 witnesses and 10 police. I was then handcuffed behind my back and locked in the police wagon spitting blood, where I remained for two hours before being put in a cell.

The other two cases making up the Retro Three are more or less the same story as mine. All three were bashed by police in front of around 25 witnesses outside the Retro Cafe on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. We were all charged with assaulting police (in my case charged under the Crimes Act). I was also charged with resisting arrest and hindering police.

During the night police took me to Fitzroy Station. The first thing I said entering the building was, “I want to lay charges against the police” before the duty sergeant informed me that I couldn’t, and that only police can lay charges. I was locked up overnight and interviewed for 45 minutes at 6am before being released.

Court

The police took several months to pursue their charges against me. My trial was scheduled to be heard in the Melbourne magistrates court in June this year. I had five witnesses ready to testify. Under oath, the police prepared falsified statements. Police statements had me holding two officers simultaneously by the neck!

Before that, in place of the first confrontation by Branov, they had me standing next to my bike, deliberately manoeuvring the front wheel between the three men and the police wagon’s back doors “attempting to prevent them” from arresting their prisoner and trying to “force the members out onto Brunswick Street into the path of oncoming vehicles”.

I am alleged to have incited the crowd to become agitated against police, saying: “They are made to be racist, all of them. That’s how they train them.” In fact I was silent. Despite having an audience of 25 people, the 10 police on the scene could not find one independent witness to verify their version of events.

My barrister in the case, Agusia Kapitaniak, advised that, on the “evidence”, I would likely be found guilty of resisting arrest and hindering police regardless of the truth of the matter. I was told my best legal option would be to plead guilty to these minor charges if the police agreed to drop the headline charge, assault. They did.

I had been looking forward to my day in court, but on that legal advice how could I justify risking a guilty finding of assault, which might have threatened my right to work as a teacher? What was the reason for fighting the police in a totally unjust court battle that hardly anybody even knew about? Especially when the police were not on trial: I was. I accepted the plea bargain, which is now the thing I regret most in all of this.

As a “guilty” offender I was to be sentenced. The process of accepting a plea of guilty to hinder and resist was appalling. The sentencing trial was presided over by Richard Pithouse, a magistrate under fire from legal and women’s rights groups for refusing to let a victim of sexual assault read out her victim’s impact statement in the Ballarat magistrates court on July 9, after she had flown to the city for the trial. On the same day, Pithouse granted his former colleague, disgraced barrister Graeme Jackson, his gun licence back. Sections of the Victorian press have criticised Pithouse for conflict of interest in that case, because Jackson was counselled by Pithouse’s legal firm in his earlier criminal proceedings.

This transcript is from my 17-minute trial:

Pithouse: Why did he [King] buy into it? [hindering police]

Kapitaniak: Your Honour, essentially what happened, he was pedalling on a bike on Brunswick Street that night after coming from a few drinks with his mates. He’s got a strong commitment to social justice and I’ll hand up some … [Interrupted]

Pithouse: Well he’s got a strong commitment to social justice, he doesn’t interfere with the police exercising their duties, it’s as simple as that. I take a very dim view of it.

Kapitaniak: Yes, Your Honour. Essentially what he sees is … [Interrupted]

Pithouse: He doesn’t know this person, he’s pedalling along on his bike in the dark and he decides he’s going to interfere with the police doing their job. Now that is not only [not] any recognition of social justice or any form of justice it is straight out interference with police doing their job. Their job is difficult enough anyhow without fools interfering.

Pithouse: I used to support Fretilin in 1972. I did the marches in 1969-70 in Vietnam, I’ve been to Nepal and places like that and worked as a volunteer. I’ve never been arrested, I’ve got a strong sense of social justice.

Pithouse: Mr King, you as a member of the community do not have a mortgage on the right to social justice. Just because what you might perceive to be seen happen as a social injustice you have no right to interfere. As a consequence you could end up in a court. I think if you had’ve done exactly the same thing in East Timor or Papua or West Papua or Indonesia, anywhere like that, you know that you ran the risk of probably being shot and/or taken into imprisonment or even be dead. By virtue of the fact we actually live in a civilised society here in Victoria, you’re not.

I was so angry at all of this I asked if I could speak, but was threatened with contempt of court. I had changed my mind and wanted to plead “not guilty” but was prevented from saying so. Pithouse ordered me to pay $750, taking my total costs to $2000.

Action against the police

The complaint that Meghan Fitzgerald and I initiated through the Office of Police Integrity (OPI) in 2009 resumed after the trial. The OPI had referred it to the Ethical Standards Division (ESD), an internal police body. That is consistent with the OPI’s practice in almost all complaints against police lodged with it: hand matters back to the police to investigate themselves.

So I was called to an interview by acting Senior Sergeant Jeffery Parker of Richmond Police, representing the ESD. Parker politely interviewed me for two hours, getting me to restate all the details of being bashed. Richmond Police photographed the scars inside my mouth.

ESD has been provided with five eyewitness statements as well as the police’s own statements admitting they bashed me over the head with my helmet and in the face with fists. I was not found guilty in court of any violent offence. All independent witnesses describe me as being totally non-violent in the lead-up and during the police assault. In fact the police did not have even one independent witness to testify I hindered police.

My case is not particularly remarkable; it is probably quite typical in many respects. What may be significant is that the police assaulted at least three people one after the other without provocation in front of 25 witnesses.

Only a tiny fraction of complaints to ESD or OPI find Victoria Police guilty of any wrongdoing. I doubt the ESD or OPI will take serious action against Branov or the other officers involved. However, if the OPI’s findings are not satisfactory, its decision can be challenged in the Supreme Court. We are preparing to push this all the way if necessary.