Riot police set for front line at future COVID protests

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Police will consider using specially equipped Public Order Response Team officers to confront violent anti-lockdown protesters in future, declaring they will now be treated as rioters rather than demonstrators.

Chief Commissioner Shane Patton said he would do everything in his power to protect front-line general-duties police from being attacked in confrontations. In Richmond on Saturday, 10 police were injured and 235 protesters arrested in repeated clashes.

“What we saw were large groups of young, angry men who were intent on committing violence,” he said.

A police officer uses capsicum spray on a protester during Saturday’s anti-lockdown rally.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Mr Patton said the police operation, which included stopping public transport into the city, successfully prevented a potential COVID super-spreader gathering of up to 15,000 people, “but it came at a cost. For our police that were assaulted and threatened, it would seem a hollow victory.”

He said senior police would review the tactics used at the weekend. However, after Saturday’s violence and similar clashes at a city demonstration on August 21, when 218 people were arrested and six officers hospitalised, he flagged the use of specialised riot police.

“Our junior members have done a magnificent job, but we have PORT [the Public Order Response Team] trained to cope with extreme violence.”

The specially equipped riot police have lightweight armour, helmets, riot shields and a range of weapons.Credit:Jason South

Until now, police have deployed regular general-duties officers on the front line and held specialist riot police in reserve. Under proposed changes to be discussed this week, PORT would be moved to front-line duties on the expectation that hardcore lockdown protests would probably become violent.

The specially equipped police have lightweight armour, helmets, riot shields and weapons including rapid-fire guns that shoot non-lethal pellets or capsicum rounds; stinger grenades rolled along the ground that explode, releasing nine rubber projectiles, waist-high to five metres; and flash-bang grenades. Up to 300 police have been trained to use the weapons.

Mr Patton defended the police tactics at Richmond on Saturday, saying: “We didn’t do it, they did it. This was not about mums and dads who wanted to protest, it was about fools who went there intent on violence … Their intention is not to demonstrate but to riot.”

He said police would look to charge some of Saturday’s arrested demonstrators with affray, which carries a maximum jail term of five years. They will also look at laying the charge of violent disorder under the Crimes Act. This offence occurs when six or more people riot causing injury and/or damage to property. The penalty is up to 10 years in jail.

If an offender wears a mask to conceal their identity or as protection from crowd-control substances such as capsicum foam, the penalty increases to a maximum of 15 years in jail.

Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt welcomed the possible use of PORT on the front line.

“Our members cannot be treated as cannon fodder. These are not demonstrations but criminal acts,” he said.

Liberty Victoria spokesperson Michael Stanton said while there was a right to protest, Saturday’s demonstration “overstepped the mark”.

“There was no social distancing and few people wearing masks, placing people at long-term risk.”

He said footage of demonstrators violently breaking through police lines was “deeply disturbing”.

Mr Stanton said Liberty Victoria remained concerned at some police tactics used in previous demonstrations, including firing pepper-ball rounds.

He also questioned if locking down Melbourne on Saturday was a “proportional response” and said the extraordinary pandemic powers granted to authorities should not be allowed to become normalised.

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