WARNING: DISTRESSING FOOTAGE. He was arrested when a night at the pub got out of hand. But back at the lockup, it was police who dealt him a knockout blow.
The handcuffed indigenous man wobbles and sways, rolling drunk, in a corridor inside the Bendigo police station. CCTV vision shows a policeman directing the 23-year-old to stand still so his photo can be taken.
As the policeman attempts to corral him, Jia Meeks appears to wriggle away or shrug suddenly. It looks like a lame gesture of resistance but, in an instant, he is grabbed and hurled in a semi-circle. His face ploughs into a metal cell door.
He is knocked out. Blood oozes from his face, pooling on the floor. As he lies on the ground, he is kicked by a policeman.
No officer in the police station referred the vision, filmed in 2015, to police’s Professional Standards Command, for review. The chief executive of Victoria’s Aboriginal Legal Service, Wayne Muir, says that if Meeks had made his own complaint, it’s likely nothing would have happened.
Watch how police deal with Jia back at the station. Warning: violence.
Warning: contents may disturb. CCTV footage edited from 10 minutes of film shows police treatment of Jia Meeks at a Bendigo police station in 2015. Click here to watch the video:
“You're going to die”
Muir’s mistrust of the police complaint system is deep. To know why, Muir refers to a case involving another indigenous Victorian. Jennifer Henry's complaint did make its way through the system. What happened, Muir believes, is a disgrace.
It’s not often a magistrate apologises to someone accused by police of domestic violence.
But when Jennifer Henry appeared before Magistrate Ann Collins, the judge set her gaze on the 44 year-old indigenous woman and said sorry.
“You are owed some apology for the manner in which you were treated,” Collins announced to a stunned courtroom in March, 2017. The police, she said, had wrongly blamed Henry, who also suffers from a mental illness, for the violence meted out in her humble Springvale home.
This was despite evidence showing that, one night in late October, 2013, it was Henry who was, in fact, the victim. She’d been spat at, bitten and violently assaulted by her drunken former partner turned housemate.
“You’re going to die, bitch,” the housemate told Henry as he choked her.
Collins said that, instead of police protecting Henry, they had inexplicably issued an intervention order against her rather than her abuser, and ordered Henry out of her own home.
Henry’s mistake appears to have been asking for police help shortly after she was assaulted. The two police officers who arrived to investigate, says Henry, were dismissive of her concerns. She says she saw them “laughing and joking” with her abuser.
Relying on laws meant to protected victims of domestic violence, the police told Henry she had five minutes to leave her home of 22 years. After she was gone, her abuser sprayed “coon” on the wall, slashed her mattresses, changed the locks, urinated in her fridge, stole some of her whitegoods and glued her washing machine shut. As with the initial assault, none of these criminal acts led to police sanction.
“You have been the victim of an act of violence,” Collins told Henry during her victim of crime compensation hearing in a Victorian magistrates court.
“And more importantly, it should have been prosecuted by the Police and you should have never been thrown out of your home.”
Henry and her lawyers at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) suspect the mishandling of Henry’s assault was due to incompetence, laziness and, perhaps, something uglier: racism. But neither the police’s internal affairs unit, now known as Professional Standards Command, nor Victoria’s public sector watchdog, the Independent Broad Based Anti-Corruption Commission, acknowledged anything wrong after VALS lodged a complaint in 2015.
If this was an aberration, VALS head Wayne Muir says, he would have urged Henry to shrug off her injustice and get on with life.
But he says Henry’s treatment, including the brush-off by internal affairs and IBAC, is “not unusual”.
“We’ve been saying for years the police complaint system is flawed,” says Muir.
While the way Victoria Police deals with domestic violence has been subject to widespread reforms after repeated failings and a royal commission, the police complaint system – the tool that is supposed to provide justice to those who suffer through police neglect, incompetence or brutality – is now facing fierce scrutiny of its own.
Fairfax Media has this week revealed disturbing cases, some backed up by CCTV vision, that raise major questions about the adequacy and independence of the existing system. In February, the assistant commissioner responsible for Professional Standards Command, Brett Guerin, resigned in disgrace after it was revealed he was using an alias on social media to post vile racist and violent comments.
The Victoria Law Institute, the community law sector, ex-judges, academics and victims are all demanding that an ongoing state parliamentary committee inquiry call for overhaul of the existing system, in which police investigate police.
Henry, an unofficial “auntie” for younger woman doing it tough in Melbourne’s outer south, has her own reasons for speaking out.
“I would hate to see these young girls to be put in this same situation as I was, looking to police for help and instead copping it. We have a complaints system that is broken and people don’t trust it. So we have a lot of silent victims.”
Henry and VALS complained directly to IBAC about her treatment in April 2015, requesting an independent investigation. IBAC did what it nearly always does with police complaints not considered serious enough to warrant the agency’s attention: it handballed it back to police.
Police failed to inform VALS of the day that Henry was being interviewed, leaving her without any support. While officers were taking her statement at Springvale police station in early July 2015, one of the cops who had kicked her out of her home walked through the interview room. Henry was shaken.
Two days later, police cleared themselves of wrongdoing, a finding later endorsed by IBAC.
The matter would have been completely buried if it was not for Henry. She applied for victims of crime compensation and, after months of waiting, her case was finally reviewed by Magistrate Collins. Collins reached a radically different conclusion to that of the police.
Collins said it was “quite clear” that police mistakes had “exacerbated” Henry’s trauma. “I have no doubt that this act of violence occurred,” Collins said.
VALS says one of the problems with the police complaints system is that previous reports recommending reforms have been largely ignored.
Back in 2009, the Victoria Police’s internal affairs unit – led by Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius- and the Department of Justice released a report that found the system was failing indigenous complainants. Indigenous Victorians often didn’t bother complaining about alleged mistreatment, the report found, fearing retribution or inaction.
The Cornelius-approved review found less than 1.5 per cent of brutality complaints involving an indigenous person were substantiated. Almost a decade later, a separate IBAC inquiry found 4 per cent of brutality allegations from a sample of police complaints were upheld.
“The police focus on disproving a complaint rather than standing it up,” says Muir, whose believes many internal investigations don’t chase up CCTV or key witnesses.
“We also see racism infecting the complaint process. But the primary problem is police investigating police. It’s why many don’t bother to complain.”
Jia Meeks, the young indigenous man arrested in Bendigo, and his partner, Danika, are among those who have stayed silent until now. Meeks ended up in a police cell after he was arrested outside a Bendigo pub on a Saturday evening in March 2015. He'd been drinking heavily while mourning the death of a relative. It was just after midnight when police pulled up.
Police claimed Meeks was acting aggressively and swearing at officers, including one who claimed in a statement that he was forced to punch Meeks to restrain him.
During an interview in his small weatherboard house on the outskirts of Bendigo, his toddler crawling around his feet, Meeks describes years of animosity between himself and a small number of Bendigo officers. He knows he’s been no angel, having previously been fined or given community correction orders for serious offending, including punching some other teens he robbed in 2012.
But local indigenous elders and mentors say Meeks has also shown plenty of promise, as a young tradie and, more recently, a new father supported by his partner, Danika, an articulate nurse who has never been in trouble with the police.
In the police brief of evidence used to charge Meeks, officers alleged that a handcuffed Meeks tried to headbutt the policeman who was attempting to take his mugshot in the police cells. Meeks and his lawyers believe the video recording of the incident shows something different. Meeks is seen drunkenly refusing to have his photo taken, moving his shoulder to shrug off a policeman’s grip. No attempted headbutt is visible.
But what is captured with clarity is a policeman hurling Meeks in a 180 degree arc that finishes with the 23-year-old’s head colliding with a metal cell door. As he lies on the floor, a policeman kicks him - an action that speaks less of violence than indifference, a prod, perhaps, to see if the handcuffed Meeks is still passed out.
The difficult job done by police – confronting suspected drunks only to be sworn at or worse – is patently clear in the police statements about Meeks’ arrest. No evidence suggests the policeman who hurled Meeks to the ground intended for his head to hit a metal door. But, watching the video, it is not immediately obvious the force used was proportionate.
Police also charged Meeks for the alleged headbutt, but later dropped the allegation. A second resisting police charge stemming from Meeks’ initial arrest was proven but dismissed, with Meeks receiving a good behaviour bond for being drunk and disorderly.
Meeks’ partner, Danika, says that ever since the incident in the cells, she and Meeks have been hassled by police: she has been pulled over and drug-tested on the way to work. It’s one of the reasons why the pair have not formally complained about the incident. “I don’t want to create more trouble for my family,” he says.
According to VALS’ Wayne Muir, this concern is more than well-founded. He’s calling for the recommendations made in 2009 by the Cornelius-backed report into police complaints and indigenous Victorians to, finally, be fully implemented.
At his recent appearance at the parliamentary committee examining the complaints system, Assistant Commissioner Cornelius said force command recognised a “very clear need for us to be a lot more transparent and a lot more fulsome in how we explain our outcomes and our decisions to affected people.” IBAC, which is now reviewing the Meeks vision, is also calling for police to overhaul the way they handle complaints outside of Melbourne to avoid perceptions of police investigating their mates.
Cornelius, meanwhile, has been temporarily appointed back to his old job at internal affairs while the police hierarchy searches for a replacement for the disgraced Guerin. The more things change…