‘It’s a pretty sad system’: the lawyer holding police to account

Warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: This story contains images and references to a deceased person.

Police accountability lawyer Jeremy King is explaining the best way to make a Vietnamese iced coffee. We’re at the restaurant Tien Dat, a short walk from his office at law firm Robinson Gill.

King says it’s the best Vietnamese in Box Hill.

“You’ve got to stir the milk first before you put it in,” he says of the coffee, “because it gets stuck at the bottom.” He recalls travelling through Laos and drinking iced coffee out of plastic bags.

Jeremy King is pushing for the establishment of an independent police ombudsman.Credit:Eddie Jim

The levity is short-lived. Robinson Gill is at the centre of many prominent lawsuits against police. King’s message to people brutalised and assaulted by officers is as blunt as it is discomforting: the only place his clients get proper justice is court.

Having seen countless accusations of police misconduct cross his desk, King is now one of the most prominent critics of the force and the systems in place to keep cops in line. After several big wins against the government, people now come to him and his team for advice and representation against police.

“The biggest thing I see consistently is people losing their faith in authority,” King tells me as he picks at a vermicelli salad. “Unfortunately, it’s a pretty sad system, but that’s just what I’ve experienced.”

Vermicelli salad at Tien Dat. Credit:Eddie Jim

His clients have been beaten, paralysed, humiliated, pepper-sprayed, racially vilified, assaulted, taunted, threatened and left to rot in holding cells. Victims have been teenagers, children, inmates, bookshop owners, doctors, the mentally ill and even a photographer from this masthead. Some clients are bereaved family members whose loved ones died in custody.

Despite or maybe because of his work, King is chipper and sardonic (“40 and over the hill”, he responds to a question about how old he is). When asked how his friends would describe him, he says: “Tired, loyal, pale and argumentative.”

Advocates like King are closer than ever to reform which could better govern complaints against police. The issue of how to manage and investigate misconduct by Victoria Police has been thrust into the public spotlight by a litany of negative cases and massive settlements, many litigated by King and his team.

It’s been a scandal-ridden decade for the force. High-profile organisational and systemic failures include the use of barrister Nicola Gobbo as an informant; the deaths of Aboriginal women Veronica Nelson and Tanya Day in custody; the bashing of a disability pensioner by officers; the force’s botched 2019 raid on the Hares & Hyenas bookshop; and its 2017 raid at Inflation nightclub.

Despite all of these scandals, King still regularly sees clients who feel brushed off by Victoria Police’s complaints system.

What we’ve seen time and time again is people who have made a complaint to police which has gotten nowhere, or been whitewashed.

One of the issues with the current system is that cases victims think should be referred to Victoria’s external police watchdog, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC), get knocked back and referred to police. Only two per cent make the cut, the rest going back to the police’s integrity unit, the Professional Standards Command.

“What we’ve seen time and time again is people who have made a complaint to police which has gotten nowhere, or been whitewashed.”

The result is only the most egregious conduct is investigated, King says, and people end up thinking their bad interaction with police hasn’t been given proper attention: “They didn’t have anywhere else to go except to bring a civil case. The system is really forcing them to.”

The police misconduct practice at Robinson Gill sits just down the road from the Box Hill police station and is now the biggest in Victoria. Their volume of work, King says, is partially driven by the inadequate complaints structure administered by police. They hoover up cases that Victoria Police and IBAC can’t – or won’t – deal with properly.

He says litigation provides clients with control over an opaque process.

“Genuinely the only time I ever see accountability is litigation. You never see it through the complaints process, you sure as hell never see it happen at IBAC, but in a civil process you can pull the curtain back, and you can see what really happened here,” he says.

“There are really good things about litigation in that you get to set the narrative. You control the story. It’s your evidence to be given. You can show a court and the community what’s happened to you, and you get to ask police questions. You can see the paper trails, you can question the witnesses … but the downside to it is it’s stressful, time-consuming and expensive.”

The firm has made a cottage industry of high-profile cases of police misconduct in Victoria (think former AFL coach Dani Laidley; Eathan Cruse, who was bashed during a terror raid; and Kim Proudlove, a doctor who tried to help a bleeding man and claimed police turned on her).

Dr Kim Proudlove claims police turned on her when she went to help an injured man in Flinders Lane. Credit:Paul Jeffers

King also isn’t afraid of using the media to highlight cases that capture the public’s attention for their violence or shocking nature. Many lawyers shy away from the media, but King uses shocking footage to illustrate the prevalence of accusations against police and the economic and social diversity of their victims. They can range from doctors trying to render assistance to asylum seekers to Indigenous people and those experiencing mental illness.

“There’s been a culture which has developed, particularly over the last 20 years, of impunity. I think that’s a direct result of having no proper external police oversight. If you don’t hold people to account and they think they can get away with it, then eventually they will. We’ve had some pretty significant things in Victoria, like the royal commission, and there didn’t really seem to be a huge reckoning within Victoria Police as a result.”

The government had promised legislation in the last parliament, but still haven’t proposed anything concrete. King has been at the forefront of group of increasingly assertive advocates pushing for the establishment of an independent police ombudsman. Many of those advocates believe it’s the best solution to fixing accountability problems in the force. It brings to light another contradiction would-be police reformers wrestle with: a progressive Victorian government taking a tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice.

Victoria has become one of the most heavily policed states in Australia after a two-decade law-and-order rivalry between Labor and the Coalition helped build the country’s largest law-enforcement organisation.

The state’s war on crime has resulted in spending on police, courts and prisons growing at double or triple the rate of other states and territories over the past decade, and Victoria now arrests and jails people at levels not seen since the 19th century.

“I think, unfortunately, the state government has a bit of a view at the moment of more prisons, more police, throw more and more money at it without addressing the root cause of the issue, which can be people stuck in a cycle of poverty or not having access to housing,” King says.

He says a lot of his clients come from vulnerable or marginalised communities who already have a poor history with police.

“I think there’s also a disconnect between the government – which does some great work in terms of social justice stuff, the Yoorrook Commission, which is amazing – but at the same time are very silent when it comes to policing in the Aboriginal community … I think their silence is deafening.”

Tanya Day’s family and supporters take part in a smoking ceremony before the 2019 coronial inquest into her death in police custody.Credit:Justin McManus

He says another issue that people fail to consider are good police who want to call out bad behaviour in the force, but lack a forum in which to do it.

“One thing that gets missed a lot in the conversation about this is that there are police who do want to call it out, but they can’t do it safely within their own system because we don’t have any external police oversight. There’s no independent forum for them to go to. I’ve seen that happen a lot,” he says.

”We do have people wanting to say, ‘What happened there was wrong’, but [also say], ‘I’m not going to put my neck out, or, even if I wanted to put my neck out, there’s nowhere for me to go’.“

Our dishes are cleared away. I drain what’s left of my Coke and King finally pushes aside his Vietnamese iced coffee. “The other thing I think that really frightened a lot of people I spoke to was the way the police responded to the protests in the second year of lockdown.”

Riot police move in to control a violent protest in the Melbourne CBD in September 2021.Credit:Justin McManus

The use of police power to quell protests is a dicey topic for any Victorian. People often misconstrue criticism of the force’s response to protests as support for the protests themselves. King pointedly says he is not entering the debate about the merits of the demonstrations, but he was shocked by the willingness of police to use military-style equipment.

“I think people were a bit terrified when they suddenly started seeing heavily armoured police rolling through the city, firing rubber bullets, people in riot gear. I mean, that stuff is reminiscent of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

“At a time when around the world we’re having conversations about, you know, ‘Do we really need these many police, should we not be diverting funds to housing, education? Why do we need a BearCat [armoured vehicle] in Melbourne?’”

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