Sky News host Andrew Bolt has called for the release of bodycam footage after Victoria Police denied threatening to arrest a couple for “inciting a riot” by wearing the Australian flag near an “Invasion Day” protest in Melbourne.
Frank Strazdins told the broadcaster last week that he and his partner Di Thorley had been warned by a police officer while wearing a pair of Australian flags on their head on January 26.
They had attended the 21-gun salute at the Shrine of Remembrance and stopped at a shop on Swanston Street when they found themselves near an Invasion Day protest featuring Aboriginal and Palestinian flags.
“I heard a lot of noise and music and chanting, so I walked out to the middle [of the street] and there 100 metres away towards Bourke Street was thousands of flags, Palestine flags, Aboriginal flags,” Mr Strazdins said.
“And within two minutes a police officer approached me and said, ‘You are under arrest for inciting a riot.’ I said, ‘What, how?’ He said, ‘With your flags on your head.’ I said, ‘Today is Australia Day.’ He started to walk me off the middle of the road.”
Ms Thorley said she was gobsmacked by the interaction.
“He was a big guy, the police officer,” she said.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Do you know there’s 30,000 people up there?’ I said I had no idea, and he seemed to back off then, he wasn’t as angry. Frank had said that we wanted to go to Southbank for something to eat and drink, so he said, ‘Alright, if you take your flags off and look after yourself and cut through the side streets to get across to Southbank.’”
Mr Strazdins said he “felt really disappointed, I was gobsmacked” about the incident.
But Victoria Police has since refuted the claims.
“Last week several media outlets published or aired columns and interviews alleging a Victoria Police officer arrested — or threatened to arrest — someone on January 26 for wearing an Australian flag,” police said in a statement.
“At least two of these media outlets failed to contact Victoria Police to fact check the story or request a comment. Had either of these outlets contacted us beforehand they would have been told the story is inaccurate.”
Police said after speaking with the “highly skilled and experienced senior officer involved” they “can confirm there was no arrest or threat of one, nor was the complainant told they could not wear an Australian flag”.
“Instead, the complainant was standing in the middle of tram tracks on Swanston Street in the direct route of a large protest group of more than 30,000 people,” police said.
“He was asked by the officer to move from the middle of the road to the side for his safety. When the male stated he did not have to move off the road, he was advised that police have the power to move people on. He then complied with the request, moved from the road and met his wife in a nearby store.”
The officer then “followed the man into the store to check on him and explain that he might unfortunately become a target for this particular protest group in his current attire”.
“Again, he was not told he could not wear an Australian flag nor was he told he would be arrested for it or for allegedly inciting riotous behaviour,” police said.
“Rather, the police officer was simply looking out for the man and didn’t want him to unknowingly become a target of the protest group. The senior officer then went above and beyond to suggest a walking path that would get the couple to their chosen destination free of disruption from protesters who were blocking the normal route and would add delays to their journey.”
Victoria Police said in addition to speaking with the officer involved it had verified this version of events with another officer who was nearby.
“This officer reiterated there was no arrest or threat of one and was confused why anyone would think a police officer would say this as there is no offence,” police said.
“In fact, it is nonsensical to suggest any police officer would threaten to arrest someone for wearing any national flag let alone an Australian flag. Victoria Police is disappointed that some media outlets think it is acceptable to criticise our hardworking police officers without first fact checking and giving us the right of reply. Particularly when we staff a 24-hour media unit.”
The statement added, “The actions of police are routinely scrutinised by the media and rightly so. We own our mistakes if and when we make them. We don’t shy away from them. But we will not tolerate our police officers being subject to fanciful stories that have not been fact checked. We will not cop that.”
In his program on Wednesday night, Bolt said he wanted “stand up” for his guests who had been “insulted” by Victoria Police.
“So he was moved on but Frank somehow made up that bit about inciting a riot, arrest, made it all up?” he said.
“And the officer just walked with Frank just to kindly warn him the crowd he was meant to be policing might pick on him? I think something did happen … of course this could be solved if police released any bodycam or CCTV of this incident.”
Thousands of protesters flooded streets across the country on January 26 to protest Australia Day.
Free Palestine Melbourne shared video of the rally to social media showing flag-waving marchers chanting, “Abolish the date, abolish the state.”
In Canberra, hundreds of protesters breached police lines outside Parliament House, with the entrance locked down as activists marched to the doors chanting, “F**k Israel and f**k Australia.”
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