Film, News & Commentary, Screen, TV

What Australian screen stories get wrong about police, crime and brutality

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We need to have a conversation about how police are portrayed in Australian film and television dramas.

SupportBadgeWith the Black Lives Matters movement, the Don Dale torture revelations and Australia’s domestic violence epidemic, the international conversation is moving towards an understanding of a police force as something that is not always inherently good, but an institution that has protects certain sections of the community — that protects discriminately. Be they women, people of colour or members of the queer community, the victims of violent crimes have been let down by law enforcement agencies.

The issue goes beyond mere neglect: the perpetrators and protectors of violent crime are often police officers themselves, and the roots of collusion and protection are rank within institutions of supposed justice. We know this from the Indigenous children who were tortured in Don Dale, from TJ Hickey’s death in Redfern more than a decade ago and the murder of Cameron Doomadgee by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley Hooper on Palm Island. There is a constant stream of less famous instances: when the law tasers an Indigneous man at his grandmother’s home and assaults a 22-year-old black man in custody, what forms is a history of systematic illegitimate and discriminatory policing.


So why is it that the portrayal of the police in Australian screen stories has remained the same, based on archetypal figures of a detective as either a good hero or a lone, corrupt baddie? Across new Australian dramas, most recently SBS’s Deep Water, which investigates Sydney’s history of homophobic violence, we are stuck in a simplistic, cops-and-robbers, goodies-and-baddies view of the police. Within the template of a procedural cop investigation, Deep Water involves a police officer called Tori (Yael Stone), who is assigned to investigate the case of a young, queer man battered to death in his bed, which leads to a deeper trail of unresolved homocides of gay men from the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Why are fictional screen stories clinging to a myth of police as indiscriminate protectors of the community?

Similarly, in shows like Water Rats, City Homocide, Stingers and Rush cops are the good guys, protecting indiscriminately. Issues of corruption and violence are not shown as a deeply systemic issue that often stems from law enforcement agencies, but as problems with rogue officers. Think of Richard Roxburgh’s Roger Rogerson in the 1990s ABC series Blue Murder, Tom Wilkinson’s Detective Carl Summer in the more recent Felony or David Wenham’s Al in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. These shows focus on individual and isolated incidents of illegitimate policing, as if they are exceptions committed by lone wolves or bad apples.

But they’re not exceptions. In the case of Deep Water, homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1984, resulting in a lingering culture, in both the police and broader society, of seeing queer people as criminals rather than citizens worthy of protection. It’s a huge problem that this systemic part of the narrative is only in the background of the Deep Water when in fact it is a key part of the history.

Rather than looking at the problems inherent in policing at the time, the series constructs a dramatic tension between the cops’ interpersonal dynamics: Tori as an intuitive young, female officer contending with older, emotionless, aggressive male superiors who have a machine-like approach to building evidence. The show suggests that the main problem was that some parents of gay homocide victims were reluctant to push for proper investigations, because it would mean acknowledging their children’s queerness. It also suggests that the problem of gay-bashing stemmed from “gangs of youths looking for prey” — in the fictional show’s case, an organised group called the Pointer gang, with the main perp a monster acting out of fear and prejudice.

Cultures of violence do not just exist because of prejudiced attitudes; they are enabled by police impunity.

But the baddies weren’t just the gay-bashers, the baddies were also inside the police force. We know this from the testimonies in the accompanying SBS documentary, Deep Water: The Real Story, which revealed chronic mistreatment of queer people by police in Sydney in the 1980s and ’90s, a time when the usual protocols of investigation were thrown away when it came to homophobic homocide.

Cultures of violence do not just exist because of prejudiced attitudes; they are enabled by police impunity. There was a knowledge among perpetrators of gay hate crimes that their actions would go unprosecuted, and there was, and is. a culture of self-protection within law enforcement. As with most crime genre dramas of this type, Deep Water is told from the perspective of the valiant, straight, white police officer. Rarely do we see violent crimes stories from the viewpoint of the victims and survivors, and this is part of a wider trend within Australian storytelling.

We expect documentaries like Deep Water: The Real Story to hold close to the truth. But fiction can be more adventurous in its imaginative dimensions — it can go beyond naive, narrow view of cops as inherently good guys. So why are fictional screen stories clinging to a myth of police as indiscriminate protectors of the community?

Forget about commercial television’s obsession with the figures of bike gangs and mafiosos, as with Underbelly and its endless installments and all the weeknight cop shows. Forget about the Australian films about organised crime rings, mobsters and drug syndicates: Chopper, Romper Stomper, Dirty Deeds, Animal Kingdom, Two Hands, The Combination, Son of a Gun and Little Fish. Australian film specialises in the crime genre, but from a very one-sided angle. There is another form of organised crime in plain sight. So where are the screen stories of Cameron Doomadgee? Of TJ Hickey? Of the corrupt networks of criminals inside law enforcement? Of the racial disproportionality in police violence and misconduct?

If you think that illegitimate policing is not a widespread problem, it’s because you are a citizen deemed worthy of protection.

Deep Water made me wonder: who does law enforcement force deem worthy of protection today? It has taken a full-blown epidemic for women dealing with domestic violence to start to be taken seriously by police. If you think that illegitimate policing is not a widespread problem, it’s probably because you haven’t directly experienced it, because you are a citizen deemed worthy of protection. Today, police officers seem to know that their own violence and excessive force against Indigenous people — the abundance of which constitutes no less than a set of institutionalised behaviours — will go unnoticed.

As The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowrey said recently, incidents of police corruption and brutality are “interwoven with a broader story [of] thousands of other experiences, generations of experiences. We hyper-focus on the individual specifics of certain incidents. While those specifics matter, sometimes that misses the forest for the trees. When someone is killed by the police, the government has killed that person.”

There has been a loss of faith by those experiencing that illegitimate policing in the protective nature of the police, in the repeated lack of justice. The loss of faith is more acutely discussed in the USA, where esteemed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has said that, “in black communities, the police departments have only enjoyed a kind of quasi-legitimacy. That is because wanton discrimination is definitional to the black experience, and very often it is law enforcement which implements that discrimination with violence.” Here too in Australia, what we are looking at is a history of abandonment and abuse by police at segments of the community that are not white, middle-class or heterosexual: the certainty of police violence against certain parts of the community.

It is becoming harder to ignore the police as a source of crime.

Overseas, shows like The Wire and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story have talked about the problems inherent in hard-edged and sometimes actively racist policing strategies against people of colour and poor communities. I cannot think of one equivalently critical approach within Australian storytelling. Similarly, storytellers have changed the way they portray church institutions following the decades-long unfurling of child abuse revelations; the Oscar-winning film Spotlight is exemplary of that process.

It is becoming harder to ignore the police as a source of crime: as the perpetrators of violence against certain parts of the community. So why is Australia’s screen industry clinging to naive tropes, when the political conversation is beginning to own up to the problems inherent in the so-called justice system?

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[box]Main image: a scene from SBS’ Deep Water[/box]

19 responses to “What Australian screen stories get wrong about police, crime and brutality

  1. Can someone pop down to the AFTRS library, borrow “Cop It Sweet,” the ABC’s 1992 doco about Police in Redfern, transfer it from VHS and put it up on You Tube? Thanks.

  2. With the New South Wales police force and in earlier years the Queensland police force the systemic problems appear mostly to have been introduced and fostered from the outside. An example is the child abuse investigations in the Hunter Valley being hampered at every turn by forces mostly outside of the police force. Even after the conclusion of one of the investigations the police officer involved was grilled in court for days, labelled as paranoid for uncovering what has now been shown to be true and driven out of the police force on the basis of that supposed paranoia.
    I think the blame for the vast majority of the systemic problems lies directly with the police ministers in each case. They call it “hands on” but it has been interference right up to the level of overt corruption in some cases. It’s worth remembering that Sir Terrance Lewis and the others responsible for many problems were catapulted directly to the top by people in politics and not people in the police force.

    1. Nothing about Queensland Police corruption came from the outside. They were enthusiastic participants in the repression of the population of Brisbane and of indigenous communities, let alone their numerous profit making schemes with organised criminals. Some police officers may have been honest but all were compliant with and complicit in government practices under the National Party government. All government departments were also corruptly run. I have a lot of personal experience of the climate of fear and repression the police created in those times. I have a lot of trouble believing that everything is different now. It is only 25 years ago after decades of corruption.

    2. In the 80s, I remember stories from a couple of friends that entered the police academy in Redfern. They would go on regular group poofter bashing excursions in Hyde park. At the time I thought it a bit excessive but one must remember homosexuality was illegal then, it was culturally acceptable to ‘correct’ them.
      In hindsight I realise it was wrong, very wrong, but it is naive to believe that now that culture no longer exists.
      And of course that is not the only issue.
      I do think there are a lot of good cops, I think I know one of them (maybe it’s me that is naive, don’t know) but also I know some not-so-good cops, ones who perhaps believe themselves otherwise but are that way because of threads of culture that still weaves itself into the fabric of the system… I’m thinking of a story one told me about kicking in a car hoons headlights and slapping a yellow sticker on the car to “teach him a lesson”
      Not good behaviour bit he thought he was keeping the kid out of the justice system with some manly correction.
      Maybe, maybe not.
      Seems to be good, bad and a lot of grey here.

      1. I suggest that the lesson your ‘hoon’ learned was that it’s fine to break the law… as long as you represent it.

        It is the same lesson as the guy who has a bad day at work, comes home and belts the wife because dinner is burned, she hits the kids for not doing their homework, they kick the dog. The ‘hoon’ won’t suddenly become a more sensible driver, but he has learned an important lesson about how society operates. Only break the rules when you can get away with it.

        It reminds me of a woman I once worked with, whose husband changed careers and decided to join the police force. She couldn’t figure out why for quite a while, but finally he admitted the reason: power. I suspect that a large proportion of today’s police are there for the same reason – power over their fellow man/woman. (She left him shortly thereafter, and now hates what he has become.)

  3. Could In suggest you go where I am and watch the local community where the rate of petty theft and violence is one of the highest in the state, where a few Aboriginal offenders seem to be untouchable (my Aboriginal friends complain of this too). There is great frustration in both community and the police. Sure it is a serious issue and the Doomagee case is a scandal oft repeated. I am not convinced that the TJ Hickey case was the same thing. I wonder how you would like to be one of the local coppers who put up with all the crap and then go out to pull someone out of a car wreck at 1 am. No excuses for the eveil, but there are good coppers. Remember that

    1. I don’t think this piece is suggesting there are no “good coppers”, nor is the article about police corruption – it is about “how police are portrayed in Australian film and television dramas”. A thought provoking article – some very interesting points raised.

    2. That would be the paramedics, not the police. Perhaps the issue with crime in the community of which you refer is not solved by policing. I would argue that policing actually makes it worse.

    3. Yes there are good coppers and I have known a few but here is an example. I get on reasonably well with the blueys, the ones in uniform but when my rego renewal went missing ( as often most of my mail does) a very polite senior constable phoned me to say while I was at the station she noted mine had expired. I was at the station to report a theft of laptop and other minor things and she was instructed not to assist at all. I also had a source in the Queensland police I went to Uni with and she warned me that a team had been formed to go after me. The only reason I am even mentioning this is somehow the powers that be must have found out as she is now unreachable. And there is lies the code of doing what you are told and not stepping out of line for fear of destroying your career. And they inter agency share data and nast lists I am sure.

  4. I agree that we need to see more screen dramas from different perspectives on these issues for a more balanced view. Having watched Deep Water, both the series and documentary, I did some follow-up reading which only highlighted how poorly investigated most of these crimes were. Conversely, I was a juror in the late 80’s on a murder trial for a young gay man kicked to death on Oxford Street. During the trial and in conversation after, both of the main investigating police officers (detectives) impressed me with their diligence in pursuing the assailants, with no hint of prejudice. Even so, as you point out, we need to see the negative side of policing explored more thoroughly.

  5. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Obviously our politicians! There obviously will be a high correlation between a rotten police force and a corrupt parliament. Under the current system of government in this country, there is little hope either can be repared.

  6. I used to work for Crawfords in the 70,s they employed many off duty Police as stunt drivers , delivery drivers etc and had a close relationship with the Police . much of what film crews did on public streets , car chases , stopping traffic , causing damage to public areas and lighting up suburban neighbourhoods till 10 pm or later on week nights was illegal and regularly attracted complaints , yet the majority went nowhere for those making the complaint . I can well imagine the scenario for people involved in producing local content that was too critical of any State Police Force even now , don’t underestimate their ability to be vindictive in many subtle and time tested ways .

  7. If producers would like to chat…give me a call. I’ve been writing about these topic for years. The Deep Water doco was an honour to be asked to appear in.

    1. Duncan, I am in the process of putting a very detailed submission together for the human rights commission regarding my treatment by the police. Some if not all of it very inflammatory but with references to material to back up my claims. If you wish me to send you a preliminary copy when finished just reply to this.Also I would be fretful for any material you wish to make public. Have a great weekend.

  8. Cudoes and best wishes to the author Lauren Carroll Harris for this most long overdue material. I have a new hero to worship. It is time we had a enquiry into the Queensland police and there fore the other state police forces and the AFP. As well the other spy services. Minorities such as gays, muslims, refugee advocates and others. The vast majority of papers won’t go near such issues either for lack of courage or afraid to lose their cosy association with the power players. Great Lauren I wish you well and you have my full support and perhaps you would consider supplying a email address so I can send you my submission to read before I let it into the public domain.

  9. This argument is just a little further along the spectrum of the ‘bad apple’ thinking. Police aren’t just brutal to minorities. Policing is, by it’s very nature, brutal. Any human being that encounters policing from the side of of the offender will experience a form of ‘police brutality’. Art has always operated to legitimise social functions that should be questioned. While we continue to believe that policing is a legitimate function of our society we must deal with the fallout. Most crimes are minor – theft, property damage, public drunkeness – a result of mental distress, poverty, unstable parenting and/or illness/addiction, yet we allow – we demand that bodies be broken, minds be shattered and families destroyed in the name of law enforcement. To keep ‘us’ ‘safe’ from the undesirables. For there to be an ‘us’ there must always, always be a them, who are sometimes black, sometimes catholic or female or arabic or gay.. but it could be anyone. If you are outside the dominant power structure you are a target for policing and that policing is always inhumane – that is it’s role and function as an arm of government.

  10. Wilst preparing for the up coming motor sport season we experinced a breakin and theft of critical and recently imported components. A couple of days later a fellow that we were not well acquainted with called in to the shop and was sympathetic to our situation , even offering us the lend of some things of his thst he was going to probably sell. I smelt a rat and paid his home a visit. His mother let me into his shed and before my eyes was our components and the bits he hsd offered us. I went directly to the police and told of my discovery. The told me to let them deal with it . We expected a quick resolve. Sorry . Almost 2 weeks and several enquirys we got the answer that our stuff had been found (under a hedge) near a town 15klm away and we could pick them up from the police.As it transpired the thief’s mother was the local police chiefs woman on the side . Ah hum

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