The state’s corruption watchdog has been accused of failing to act on police brutality, after clearing officers who stomped on the head of a mentally ill man and struck him with a police car outside a Melbourne hospital last year.
The officers cleared of misconduct were caught on film as they dealt with father Timothy Atkins, who had waited almost 20 hours for help at Epping’s Northern Hospital last September before breaking a glass door.
Footage from the incident.Credit:Jake Edwards
Mr Atkins was placed in a coma as a result of his injuries.
Lawyers for the 32-year-old roof plumber have slammed the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission’s decision to find the police behaviour lawful.
“IBAC is so far out of step with community expectations that there needs to be a top-down overhaul and review of its conduct regarding resources, culture and legislative powers,” Robinson Gill’s Jeremy King said.
“What they are effectively doing now is either not acting in respect to police misconduct or now sanctioning it.”
Timothy Atkins and his partner. Mr Atkins was injured during his arrest, prompting an IBAC investigation.
But IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich, QC, said the situation at Epping was “dynamic and unpredictable”, leaving police to deal with an agitated and distressed person having a mental health episode, whose actions had the potential to endanger himself and others.
“Victoria Police officers used escalating levels of force in their attempts to get the situation under control. Less forceful options such as verbal directions, capsicum spray and a baton strike were used first, but did not work,” he said.
“Considering all the evidence gathered, IBAC found the force used by police officers at the scene was lawful in the circumstances.”
Mr Atkins said IBAC’s decision to clear the officer who stomped on his head had left him shocked.
“The footage is as clear as day. I just don’t get it.”
A still from footage of the incident.
At the time of the incident, police Deputy Commissioner Neil Paterson appeared at a press conference in which he said the officers involved had displayed an “inappropriate use of force”.
He moved to suspend some police involved, including a member of the critical incident response team. One officer had his authority to drive a police vehicle removed.
Soon after, Premier Daniel Andrews said the injured man’s family deserved answers and that standing down the officers involved had been appropriate.
The incident was then referred to IBAC.
Details of the roadside arrest released at the time revealed that Mr Atkins had gone to Northern Hospital seeking treatment for his bipolar disorder about 9pm on September 12.
About 4pm the following day, while he was still waiting for treatment, he broke a glass door and police were called.
Videos from witnesses showed Mr Atkins walking down the middle of a nearby road soon after, waving his arms in front of a police car. As he turned around and walked away, the police car sped up and struck him.
Mr Atkins’ family said he had gone to the hospital seeking help while waiting for a bed to become available in the psychiatric ward and had not experienced a bipolar episode in nine years.
On Friday, Mr Redlich said the decision to find the officers’ actions lawful followed a thorough investigation.
IBAC did, however, find several areas of concern which presented police-misconduct risks. They included a failure to inform Mr Atkins of his reason for detention, as required by Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act, he said.
In addition, the police officers had failed to provide Mr Atkins with appropriate aftercare for exposure to capsicum spray and two officers had directed unprofessional comments at him.
The watchdog also found other vulnerabilities that might expose Victoria Police to increased risks of misconduct, including the failure of some officers to activate body-worn cameras, an “unco-ordinated deployment” of critical incident response team staff and inaccuracies with use-of-force reporting.
The officers who responded to this incident had also not yet received training developed by Victoria Police to improve responses to mental health-related incidents, Mr Redlich said.
A Victoria Police spokeswoman said professional standards would now review the matter to determine whether any disciplinary action was appropriate.
The police officer involved in the kicking incident remained suspended and the driver of the police car was still restricted from driving a force vehicle, she said.
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