Australia police reject comparison to US over teen's arrest

ROD McGUIRK
A woman holds a sign as protesters gather in Sydney, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, to support the cause of U.S. protests over the death of George Floyd and urged their own governments to address racism and police violence. Floyd died last week after he was pinned to the pavement by a white police officer who put his knee on the handcuffed black man's neck until he stopped breathing. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian police on Wednesday rejected comparisons to the U.S. after an indigenous teenager was injured while being arrested in Sydney, though a government leader said it raised questions about race relations and the teen's family called for the officer involved to be charged.

A New South Wales state police constable is under internal investigation after he pinned the 16-year-old’s arms behind his back then kicked his legs out from under him on Monday. A video had circulated on social media of the teen falling face-first to the ground.

Police have said the officer was in the inner-suburb of Surry Hills for an unrelated reason when he struck up a conversation with the teenager and his four companions. The video showed the teen threatened to break the police officer’s jaw, and the officer’s response was to arrest him.

“We have probably the best relationship between the community and the police of any jurisdiction around the world,” Police Minister David Elliott told reporters.

He said the police response “was not unprovoked.”

“The important message here is that Sydney is not Minnesota,” Elliott said, referring to the death of George Floyd. “What happened in the United States is not what happens here.”

He said he rejects claims that Australian police “have similar problems that exist in the United States.”

But New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the teen's arrest raised questions about race relations in Australia.

“I thought what most Australians thought and that is we still have a long way to go in our country,” Berejiklian said of the video.

“I think what’s happened in the U.S. is a good wake-up call for all of us and I think all of our hearts are breaking as to what’s happening in the United States and we certainly have to ensure that we do what we can in our own country to protect all of our citizens,” she added.

Indigenous Australians are 2% of the Australian adult population but 27% of the prison population. A total of 432 indigenous Australians have died in police detention and prison since 1991, according to a running analysis by The Guardian newspaper.

Australia’s indigenous people also have higher-than-average rates of infant mortality and poor health, as well as shorter life expectancy and lower levels of education and employment than other Australians.

The police officer in involved in the Sydney arrest has been restricted on what duties he can perform while his use of force is investigated. The teen, who cannot be identified, was not charged and was taken to a hospital for a medical examination. He suffered grazes to his face and a chipped tooth.

The teen's father, mother and sister held a news conference flanked by lawyers in which the family called for the officer to be charged and the incident to be investigated independent of police.

The family cannot be identified under state law to conceal the teen's identity. The family took a knee during the news conference in respect for Floyd

The teen's father said what happened to his son echoed experiences he had when he was young, but back then people didn't have smartphones and social media to draw attention to it.

The sister said the video was chilling and that children should be entitled to a childhood without being treated like criminals. She said the officer's actions were out of line.

Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said the officer had no record of misbehavior during more than three years' service. If the complaint against him of excessive force was upheld, "you would have to say he's had a bad day,” Fuller said.

“I think most of the community wouldn’t want to see someone who made a mistake sacked after making such a commitment to the community,” Fuller added.

David Shoebridge, a state lawmaker for the minor Greens party and a lawyer who attended the family news conference, disagreed.

“This isn't an incident that was caused by an officer having a bad day," he said. "It's systemic.”

The incident was highlighted when around 3,000 demonstrators marched through downtown Sydney on Tuesday night in a peaceful protest against Floyd’s death and demanding fundamental change in race relations.