V/Line staff used excessive force when they removed a "frail old man" from a country train and restrained him on the ground with his pants around his ankles, the Victorian Ombudsman has found.
In a report tabled in Parliament on Wednesday, Ombudsman George Brouwer said he was satisfied "unnecessary force" had been used by the officers, two of whom held the 62-year-old man face down on the platform for more than nine minutes.
The man, who had been drinking alcohol in the carriage, was travelling from Castlemaine to Melbourne when V/Line staff escorted him from the train at Sunbury railway station.
CCTV footage of the incident, from March last year, shows the man being led off the train by V/Line officers with his pants down. Two officers forced him to the ground and held him there until police arrived. Three other V/Line officers stood nearby, with one filming the man as he lay on the platform.
Mr Brouwer described the Department of Transport and V/Line’s training of its authorised officers as “deficient”.
“In my view it is clear that he was handled in a heavy-handed manner despite being, as described by the police officer, a frail person,” he said. “I am satisfied that unnecessary force was used on him both in his removal from the train and being held for nine minutes face down on the platform by the authorised officers.”
In response to the Ombudsman’s draft report V/Line alleged that the passenger had assaulted an officer, however a senior constable who attended the incident said: “None of the V/Line officers stated to me that they had been assaulted and wanted to take the matter further.”
Police allowed the passenger to continue his journey, with one saying he had been “dealt with harshly” by the officers and that the tactics used to restrain him “far outweighed how a reasonable and fair person would expect to be treated”.
V/Line officers defended their actions, saying in their reports that the passenger struggled and was resisting, but Mr Brouwer said the officers had discussed the incident before preparing their statements, which could have led to “allegations of collusion to ensure that all the witnesses corroborate each other on key events”.
Four of the five officers refused to answer questions from the Ombudsman about the incident on the grounds of self-incrimination. Mr Brouwer reiterated his concerns about witnesses being able to refuse to answer questions on these grounds, and said it "interferes with the effectiveness" of investigations.
The investigation prompted Mr Brouwer to recommend CCTV cameras be installed on V/Line trains. He also called for a review of training in the use of restraints and arrest, and a review of debriefing procedures after a notifiable incident.
V/Line said it had engaged Victoria Police to review its officer training and use of physical restraint and that it would apologise to the passenger.
Transport Minister Terry Mulder said the government accepted the watchdog’s recommendations and the Department of Transport would continue to review and, where necessary, improve the training of authorised officers.
He said V/Line was conducting a trail of CCTV on a number of carriages and that the department would recommence its investigation into the incident, which was halted during the Ombudsman’s probe.
"If we can do anything to ensure that authorised officers can carry out their work in a more meaningful manner then certainly we will be supporting that,” he said. "We will have to look at that to determine whether that level of restraint and that level of physical activity was appropriate."
Mr Mulder said there were about 10 million "contacts” every year between authorised officers and the public. In the past three years 30 incidents were put forward for investigation, resulting in the sacking of eight officers. Only 13 authorised officers are allocated to the V/Line service.
"There will always be incidents, particularly incidents involving people who are under the influence of alcohol and drugs that authorised officers have to deal with,” he said.
Opposition public transport spokeswoman Jill Hennessy called for a review of officer training in the use of restraints and arrest.
"This is the second major incident that the Ombudsman has identified and brought to public attention on the inappropriate conduct and excessive force used by Authorised Officers,” she said.
"It is concerning that there are shortfalls in the essential training of authorised officers on V/Line trains resulting in the wrongful detainment and excessive force towards commuters.”
Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber said the authorised officer program should be abolished, and transit police should deal with antisocial behaviour on public transport.
"We should stop this sort of nasty conflict which is really a bad experience for everyone that is using public transport," he said.
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