RLC in the Media: COVID-19 fines discussed on ABC TV's The Drum

RLC's Samantha Lee was a guest on The Drum, speaking alongside journalist Osman Faruqi about concerns that a disproportionate number of COVID-19 fines appear to be being issued in lower socioeconomic areas.

The Drum (21 April 2020).

NSW is the only state which has released data on where police COVID-19 infringement notices have been handed out.

According to the NSW police data collated by Osman Faruqi, Fairfield, Liverpool, Bankstown and Canterbury account for 15% of all the fines issued in NSW to date, despite those areas representing just 5% of the state's COVID-19 caseload. Conversely, only 1.8% of fines have been issued in areas with the highest caseload, Northern Beaches Whoolara and Waverly. 

"It's not the first time we've seen evidence of certain communities being policed more than others, but this does seem to be another data point that suggests that those areas with lower socioeconomic status or people from high non-English speaking backgrounds are having more interactions with police, and more fines than those in wealthier, white areas," Faruqi said.

"I think what's particularly interesting around the COVID-19 Public Health laws is that they were introduced, specifically, as a way to limit the spread of the virus ... It's not just there to punish people for the sake of it.

"So if you think it's important to have police enforcement of this, we'd expect that to be being enforced in the areas where there are the highest rates of the virus and the highest levels of community transmission, those in the case of Sydney, or the eastern suburbs or the Lower North Shore or the Northern Beaches. [And yet] they have some of the lowest fines," Faruqi said.

Samantha Lee raised concerns that the COVID-19 laws may be erroneously being used by police to circumvent legal thresholds when conducting stop and search procedures on marginalised groups.

"Ethnically diverse communities out in lower socio-economic areas are probably being hit hardest when it comes to these types of fines and offences ... And what we're seeing through the COVID-19 cases is that this is another way in to engage in a stop and search scenario," Lee said.

"Police still need to meet essential legal thresholds, for example, reasonable suspicion, the onus of proof. They can't just stop and search for no reason, they need to meet legal standards, and I really am concerned that that isn't being communicated to officers on the ground.

"This is one of that most heftiest on-the-spot-fines available to police. In a time when people are losing their jobs; they're financially in dire straits; they're emotionally in dire straits. And the last thing they need is a $1000 on-the-spot fine.

"So I would really like to see a direction from the police ministers and commissioners, that a fine should be an absolute last resort in these circumstances," Lee concludes.

View comments from Samantha Lee and Osman Faruqi at the 26:45 minute mark (ABC TV, The Drum, 21 April 2020)