Saturday, 29 March 2008

Firemen read riot act over heavy-handed police

Missing in action … the banner belonging to the Fire Brigade Employees Union at the demonstration in Hyde Park during the APEC summit last year.

IT BEGAN with two firefighters demonstrating against George Bush's visit to Sydney during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit.

Now a feud over the confiscation by riot police of a fire brigade union banner during the protest march has escalated, with a complaint to the Police Integrity Commission, a referral to the NSW Ombudsman and the last-minute intervention of the Police Minister, David Campbell, with a promise to return the missing article.

On September 8 last year the two firefighters, Jeremy Fewtrell and Luke Unsworth, were taking part in the peaceful demonstration in Hyde Park, outside the officially declared APEC zone, carrying the banner while their colleagues carried five union flags.

According to a statement prepared for the integrity commission by Mr Fewtrell, three riot squad officers snatched the banner and flags.

"Luke Unsworth and I were walking quietly away from the area at the time of this encounter and were doing nothing to provoke this attack or draw attention to ourselves," he wrote.

"As we were walking, three police officers set upon us from our rear and surrounded us. Without any introduction or explanation they aggressively demanded the [Fire Brigade Employees Union] banner and flags from me.

"I asked them why this was necessary and the three of them then violently reefed [the banner and flags] from my hands. I was told that if I asked any further questions, they would arrest me. One of the police officers … then took the banners away from the immediate area."

None of the officers was wearing name tags.

The officers told Mr Fewtrell he could collect the banner and flags later that day from the Sydney Police Centre, but they were not available.

The secretary of the NSW Fire Brigade Employees Union, Simon Flynn, speculated that police may have taken the banner as a souvenir. "This is exceptionally bad for the relationship between police and firefighters, who

have historically worked well together in the interests of the public."

Mr Flynn says the head of police internal affairs told him the police "had no case to answer" but had acknowledged the officers had taken the banner and recommended reimbursing the union.

Mr Fewtrell, who was based in several inner-city fire stations at the time of the incident and is now based in Dubbo, said he and his colleagues had been wearing T-shirts that clearly identified them to police as fellow emergency service workers.

"The police seemed pumped up on the day and were clearly spoiling for a fight," he said. "They were disappointed that it did not happen. This incident has made me more wary of dealing with the police."

Mr Campbell, in a letter sent to Mr Fewtrell, praised police for their handling of the APEC demonstrations, but did not answer the question about the whereabouts of the missing banner and flags.

But late yesterday, Mr Campbell said the banner and flags had been found and would be returned next week. "It is unacceptable. There is no doubt the flag should have been located and returned earlier."

No comments: