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Ticket to a rough ride

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An online petition against the use of force by ticket inspectors has gone viral. Are these authorised officers way out of line or are they just doing their job? Julia May reports.

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CCTV: inspector 'body-slams' teen girl

CCTV shows ticket inspectors appearing to pick up a girl and slam her to the ground at Flinders Street Station. (No audio)

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Three hefty, official-looking men in shirt sleeves and ties escort a man off a train at Sunbury. He is pushed into a seat and a scuffle ensues; it appears he is trying to pull up his trousers. He is hauled to the ground by two officers and pinned to the ground, one officer on each arm. Three others look on.

Close-up vision of this incident, captured on video, reveals the man to be thin and elderly. His trousers are around his thighs, his underpants on view, his glasses broken. He insults the officers with all the might of a child in a playground:

Ticket inspectors at work on the Sandringham line (these men were not involved in the violent incidents referred to and pictured in this story).

Ticket inspectors at work on the Sandringham line (these men were not involved in the violent incidents referred to and pictured in this story). Photo: Paul Jeffers

''I thought this sort of thing only happened on TV. No wonder you've got a reputation as pigs, because you act like pigs! This is Australia!''

One of the officers replies politely, addressing the 62-year-old man he is pinning down as ''sir''. The man stays face-down on the platform for nine minutes, until the police arrive. Eventually he is allowed back on the train, with no action being taken against him for drinking on board - the reason he was removed from the train in the first place.

The men holding the man down are ticket inspectors, or so-called authorised officers, employed by public transport operators in Victoria - in this instance, V/Line - but authorised by the Victorian Department of Transport to arrest and detain people.

A teenage girl is body-slammed by a ticket inspector at Flinders Street station (see video above).

A teenage girl is body-slammed by a ticket inspector at Flinders Street station (see video above).

They are responsible for reporting ticketing and behavioural offences as well as for protecting the public by maintaining order on public transport. But their image as enforcers vastly overshadows their role as protectors: four months after this August 2013 incident, footage emerged showing a Metro Trains officer hurling a 15-year-old girl to the ground - known in wrestling parlance as a bodyslam - at Flinders Street station.

Her crime? Trying to sneak through the gates without buying a ticket. It later emerged that the girl lives in residential care under the guardianship of Anglicare Victoria. Metro Trains has pressed charges against her for assault for allegedly striking the officer in the face.

It's 15 years since Victoria's public transport system was privatised, conductors were phased out and ticket inspectors were brought in. But many critics describe the inspectors as ineffectual, predatory and power-hungry.

V/Line officers use excessive force to remove a passenger from a train.

V/Line officers use excessive force to remove a passenger from a train.

Greens MP Greg Barber says: ''They've got all the powers of police but none of the accountability or oversight.''

Tony Morton, from the Public Transport Users Association, says: ''[These incidents] are another example of the heavy-handed tactics used against public transport users who are doing the wrong thing but not to the extent that this response is warranted … It's a pattern of behaviour that's been allowed to establish itself over time.''

An online petition against the use of force by authorised officers, started by Dan A'Vard, who describes himself simply as ''a guy who cares a bit'', has gone viral. It's attracted 35,000 signatures and thousands of comments from angry public transport users.

A'Vard, an environmental consultant with neither a history of activism nor any political affiliations, started the petition on the change.org website after seeing the footage of the young girl being detained at Flinders Street station.

''There's no excuse for violence, particularly when that violence comes from the face of an organisation [Metro Trains],'' he says. ''In this instance it is a young girl who is completely mismatched in any kind of physical confrontation with a grown man who does this for a living … If there was a need for the girl to be restrained, she didn't need to be thrown on her head.''

A'Vard was surprised by the response to his petition; he thought he might get a small response that he could present to Metro to demonstrate people's concern. ''It's astounding how many people this has resonated with.''

One signatory, Carlee Hume, writes: ''Over the past few years I have witnessed countless acts of bullying and intimidation by Metro Trains ticket inspectors. Once a random inspection revealed that my ticket had not been validated (I'd simply forgotten).

''Although I was sitting down on a moving train and complying with the inspectors' demands, they still called for back-up, I was swarmed on by three large ticket inspectors who enclosed around me in a circle while I gave my details. It was excessive, bewildering and completely unnecessary.''

Another, Sheila Bardon, writes: ''If I did this to one of my children they would all be removed from my care, I would be found guilty of child abuse and imprisoned. If nightclub bouncers were caught on film doing this, they would be found guilty of assault. Why are these men above the law?''

The Department of Transport, public transport operators and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union have held firm, saying the officers have an important - and challenging - role to play in protecting ticket revenues and deterring antisocial and reckless behaviour such as drinking and vandalism to train-surfing.

Luba Grigorovitch, Victorian secretary for the RTBU, which represents authorised officers, says there has been a ''witch-hunt'' against them. ''People forget that they have a really tough job.''

But, except for the union, none of the key parties was prepared to go on the record to discuss the issues raised in this article about their officers' behaviour: the Department of Transport sent a written statement; calls to the Transport Minister Terry Mulder's office went unreturned.

Public Transport Victoria, the body to which public transport operators are contracted and which describes itself as an ''advocate for public transport users'', declined to comment, directing inquiries to the department.

Metro Trains, after trying to direct inquiries to Public Transport Victoria, said it had nothing more to say. V/Line sent a recycled statement from early February, and said it had nothing to add.

Amid the bureaucratic quicksand, however, one official is taking a stand: the Victorian Ombudsman, George Brouwer. In early February, Brouwer tabled an explosive report to Parliament on the V/Line incident. It was his second such investigation in three years and a third is under way (his office is not allowed to provide details).

Brouwer found that the V/Line officers had breached Section 22 of the Charter of Human Rights, pertaining to the humane treatment and respect for people in detention. He concluded: ''It is clear that [the passenger] was handled in a heavy-handed manner despite being … a frail person. I am satisfied that unnecessary force was used on him.'' In addition, he found that the officers had potentially colluded in the preparation of their reports - as, he notes, their training manual encourages them to. Brouwer wrote: ''This, in my view, is inappropriate and unprofessional.''

As well as recommending that CCTV cameras be installed on all trains, Brouwer took issue with how authorised officers are recruited and trained.

They receive six weeks of intensive training - half of what Protective Service Officers undergo in the Victoria Police - and must complete a certificate in ''public transport customer service and compliance'' within 12 months of starting the job.

But it's not until after a recruit completes the six weeks of training that they are submitted for background checks - including criminal checks. One of the V/Line inspectors involved in the incident with the elderly passenger was found to have been previously charged with assault and placed in a diversion program.

V/Line has asked Victoria Police to review its training and is trialling CCTV in one of its trains. A spokeswoman from the Department of Transport welcomed the Ombudsman's report but says that in the past three years, stricter standards have been put in place for training, accreditation and supervision of authorised officers, resulting in 30 investigations and nine resultant resignations or sackings.

The RTBU's Grigorovitch says despite the Ombudsman's findings, internal investigations by V/Line and the department found the officers had ''acted reasonably and in accordance with company policy''.

She adds: ''Although the Ombudsman might have said they used excessive force, they definitely acted in accordance with their training''. If training needed to change, then the department needs to step up and take responsibility, she says.

The president of Liberty Victoria, Jane Dixon, SC, says while Brouwer's recommendations were appropriate, the system could be further improved with a public consultation overseen by an independent auditor.

''Failure to provide sufficient supervision and oversight is likely to lead to increased risks of harm to the public and costly litigation.''

Greg Barber says Brouwer's powers are limited because he can't investigate policy failures. ''What [Brouwer] is pointing to is an administrative failure in the supervision and authorisation of private company employees deputised to enforce the law.

''What I'm saying is the program is not only poorly supervised, but also ineffective in terms of its overall aim, which is to reduce fare evasion.''

There are about 530 million passenger trips on the Victorian transport network annually. Last year, from 10 million interactions with passengers, ticket inspectors handed out 200,000 infringement notices for ticketing and behavioural offences.

Barber says this shows that authorised officers are not effective at plugging the $64.3 million gap in ticket revenue. Put another way, only 2 per cent of all trips involve an interaction with inspectors, and of those, only 2 per cent receive infringement notices - and the department has not provided a breakdown to show what proportion of those are purely for fare evasion.

Whichever way you look at it, Barber says, the inspectors are not adequately covering the network. The best way to improve those numbers, he says, is to bring back conductors and boost station staff numbers, which could be done by redeploying authorised officers.

''I want to make it easy to buy a ticket and hard to fare evade and both of those things require station staff to deal with ticketing issues,'' he says.

''Imagine if we could make it that you'd have a 90 per cent chance of getting checked [rather than 2 per cent]. It would be normal to pay, whereas now it's normal for most people to evade some of the time. The rehumanisation of the system will do that, and remove large parts of the conflict.''

Barber says he wants to see more transit police on the system to tackle antisocial behaviour, and PSOs redeployed to problem areas.

The RTBU's Grigorovitch says while the union wants every station to be staffed, Barber's idea is ''nonsensical'' because the government would not approve the conversion of officers to staff, and anyway, station staff would still have to deal with antisocial behaviour.

A'Vard says the response from Metro Trains has been ''very limited'' and unsatisfactory. He wants to see them take a stand against violence, and to improve the background checks, training and support for inspectors.

He recognises that, on the flipside, being a ticket inspector is not easy; indeed they are strongly disliked by the general population. A 2008 government market research paper, obtained under freedom of information by Barber, ranked them lower than parking inspectors. They were described as ''evil, nasty, intimidating and harassing'', while the physical image conjured was of ''moving in packs, black leather gloves, trench coats and big, balding men''.

The industry-funded Public Transport Ombudsman, Janine Young, shares jurisdiction over authorised officers with Brouwer's office, but her focus is on administration, customer service and privacy, rather than the use of force.

Her office received 220 complaints last year about authorised officers, a big jump on the previous year. She says she has advised public transport companies to train officers in dealing less combatively with people, particularly those who are vulnerable.

''If you get a complaint and it may affect your brand you should act pretty quickly.'' She says that complaints can go in the other direction, too: that members of the public can be aggressive and difficult.

''The authorised officer may have been challenged significantly by the consumer; you want that addressed for your staff member. So every complaint should be looked at on face value.''

But Grigorovitch says the focus on force is overblown. ''Look at the figures - 30 million interactions between AOs and the public from 2010 to 2013, and out of those only 30 incidents put forward for internal investigation. They are a vital part of public transport and we couldn't operate safely without them.''

Julia May is a Melbourne journalist.

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