Police Association Victoria secretary Wayne Gatt said the decision had inflamed tensions within the force after officers spent months enforcing the deeply unpopular COVID measures.
“Our members were asked to do a thankless job by the government and they did that,” he said.
“If offenders form a view from this experience that penalties will be readily converted to cautions or diversions as a matter of course, then that sends a concerning message. We want to encourage wilful compliance and not encourage civil disobedience.”
The decision is expected to infuriate the people who have already paid their fines, of which there were only 845 up until October last year.
Fairfield man Michael O’Reilly, who paid a $1652 fine for breaching public health guidelines, said the new policy served to highlight the government’s inconsistent approach.
He said police were now more lenient after playing “hard ball” at a protest he took part in outside Preston’s Mantra Hotel last April. Dozens of other protesters were also fined.
According to the most recent data from Fines Victoria, more than 19,000 penalty notices were issued by October last year. Of those, 18 per cent had reached a “notice of final demand” stage, while a further 3455 had been registered with Fines Victoria for enforcement action.
The new guidelines, prepared by the force’s legal services department and circulated in an internal email on December 17, urge police prosecutors and officers involved in contested cases to take the most lenient approach.
“There are three tiers in the guide and informants/prosecutors must proceed with the lowest tier option unless inappropriate to do so,” the email states.
Charges will only proceed for people classified as tier three, who demonstrated “repeated, deliberate or continuing breaches of the chief health officer’s directions,” or those infected with COVID-19 who refused to isolate.
The guidelines represent a major backflip of enforcement action by the Andrews government and Victoria Police, which had previously adopted a hardline approach and issued thousands of fines after the state of emergency was declared in March.
People were fined $200 for not wearing a face mask in public and up to $1652 for most stay-at-home order breaches. Fines of $4957 applied for unlawful gatherings and COVID-positive people who failed to self-isolate.
Mr Gatt said the decision to avoid prosecuting offenders has fuelled tension with the Police Association, whose members were forced to implement the tough measures.
“These penalties, once issued, were reviewed. In all other cases police have already used their discretion,” he said.
“Once police have issued a penalty however, and it’s contested, matters should be heard at court as there is surely a public interest in ensuring ongoing deterrence and compliance.”
Liberty Victoria President Julia Kretzenbacher called on the government to review the fines that had already been paid, in the interest of fairness.
“We need the response to COVID-19 to be health-based, not a policing response, so it is encouraging Victoria Police has been told to exercise discretion in most circumstances, so that people are not saddled with huge fines,” Ms Kretzenbacher said.
She said disadvantaged communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 fines.
Mr O’Reilly, 62, was fined as he gathered with fellow Refugee Action Collective supporters on Good Friday.
His written objection to the fine was rejected and he chose not to take the matter to court because he has health issues and didn’t want the stress or the conviction.
Refugee Action Collective spokesman Chris Breen said ‘‘heavy handed, discriminatory policing and crushing fines have never been an acceptable part of dealing with a public health emergency”.
He said while the police change in policy was welcome, police were still pursuing 30 refugee supporters for $50,000 in fines resulting from the Preston car convoy.
“I am still facing an incitement charge to be heard in the Magistrates Court … for being one of the organisers of the convoy,” Mr Breen said.
“Police should withdraw the fines and the charge, which are both inconsistent with the new approach, and an outrageous attack on the right to protest.”
Berhan Ahmed, a University of Melbourne adjunct professor and African-Australian community leader, said infringements issued to residents from nine public housing towers who found themselves in ‘‘hard lockdown’’ in July had further traumatised them.
He said some residents who had mental health issues and drug addictions were fined for leaving their apartments.
“They wanted to sneak out of the place and needed health workers instead of police,” he said.
Dr Ahmed said many of those who received fines were already under great financial and emotional stress.
“They are already struggling to pay their bills and then they receive a fine that they can’t afford.”
Katherine Ellis, CEO of Youth Affairs Council Victoria, welcomed a “compassionate and constructive approach” from authorities.
“It is cruel and distressing to ask children, young people and their families to pay thousands of dollars of fines on top of all the challenges COVID-19 has presented with job loss, disrupted education and social isolation,” she said.
Victoria Police did not respond to questions from The Age, but released a statement.
“Victoria Police supports the chief health officer by enforcing the directions that are in place at the time and issues infringements to those who blatantly breach the directions,” a spokeswoman said.
“To ensure consistency across the organisation when dealing with reviews or contested infringements for breach of CHO directions, guidance in the form of a three-tiered system was developed. This approach provides direction, consistency and parity.”
A Victorian government spokesperson said fines had played a critical role in sending a clear message that anyone who blatantly and deliberately breached the Chief Health Officer’s directives would face a penalty.
“Victoria Police makes prosecutorial decisions independent of government, and it would be inappropriate to intervene in these decisions,” the spokesperson said.
“Victoria Police have had extensive checks in place throughout the pandemic to ensure all fines are appropriately issued.”
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Senior Crime Reporter
Carolyn Webb is a reporter for The Age.