New South Wales Police have begun ‘Operation Stay at Home’ which will see an increase in police and military presence across the State in an attempt to enforce public health orders.
Despite ‘Operation Stay at Home’ being enforced in a matter of public interest, Aboriginal advocates are concerned about the potential effect the operation may have on Aboriginal people and communities.
Announcing the operation on Sunday, NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Mick Willing said the “unprecedented operation” sees police work alongside “colleagues from the Australian Defence Force enforcing the strengthened public health orders”.
“Fourteen-hundred highway patrol officers will be out and about with their specialist equipment, trolling backroads and creating roadblocks so there is simply nowhere for you to go if you want to breach public health orders,” he said.
“We now have a statewide lockdown across the State, we need 100 per cent of people to stay at home and comply with the orders. Not 90 per cent, 100 per cent.”
The Deputy Commissioner noted that whilst police “don’t want to have to enforce these orders, these additional powers” they are doing so as a matter of public safety.
“Please stay at home, protect your loved ones, protect your family. Do it for them, do it for NSW and we can reverse this trajectory of the current variant,” he said.
The Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) NSW/ACT has voiced its concerns about the over-policing of Aboriginal peoples and communities.
The service said that during lockdown in 2020, NSW Police issued the largest number of fines to suburbs with high Aboriginal populations. Suburbs such as Mount Druitt, Liverpool, Green Valley, Blacktown and Redfern were some of the most fined areas.
“This is no surprise — statistics demonstrate that Aboriginal people are typically subject to over-policing,” said ALS NSW/ACT Deputy CEO Anthony Carter.
“Now that police have extra powers and are joined on the ground by 800 members of the Australian Defence Force, we are extremely concerned about the potential for Aboriginal people to again be targeted and intimidated.”
ALS NSW/ACT is also calling for the NSW Government to better support Indigenous communities and to better clarify the continuously evolving and strengthened public health orders.
“The vast majority of people want to do the right thing. We’ve seen how determined Aboriginal communities are to protect one another — they set the bar for locking down last year,” said Carter.
Carter said the 2021 Close the Gap report recorded the rate of COVID-19 in Indigenous people as being six times lower than the rest of Australia.
“We really want to keep it that way,” he said.
“It’s on the NSW Government to ensure masks, rapid testing, vaccines and other resources are available to towns including Walgett, Dubbo, Brewarrina and Bourke, where local organisations are doing their best to curb the regional outbreak.
“We also need clear, accessible information made available for our communities on the COVID rules, which are constantly changing.”
Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians and Member for Barton Linda Burney shared the legal service’s sentiments, noting there must be “genuine and proper community engagement with Aboriginal and other non-English speaking communities about public health measures”.
“If not, then all we’re going to see is people unwittingly not complying and Aboriginal and non-English speaking communities copping the bulk of fines, and that is [in] no one’s interest,” she said.
The Shadow Minister said in the past few weeks she has heard from “anxious Aboriginal and migrant community groups who want to do the right thing, but are having difficulty keeping up with a constantly evolving public health situation”.
“Governments must engage and involve trusted community leaders as part of this process,” she said.
“Both the State and Federal Governments really need to up their game when it comes to proper engagement and consultation with these communities.”
ALS NSW/ACT is encouraging all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in NSW and the ACT to contact them for assistance with infringement notices.
“If you’ve received a fine, we want to know. Our offices are currently closed to the public, but we have extra people on the phones … we can help,” Carter said.
The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT can be contacted on 1800 765 767
By Rachael Knowles