On Saturday night uniform and plain clothes police flooded Chapel St and Fitzroy St, two of Melbourne’s busiest club districts. Accompanied by police dogs they targeted club goers, including venues and the lines outside them. By the end of the night, 10 people lining up to get into clubs were arrested for having drugs, including cocaine, MDMA, and ketamine.
A media release from Victoria Police said the activity was a part of ‘Operation Safenight’ which aims to “improve safety and crack down on drug and alcohol misuse and anti-social behaviour.” It’s an operation that will see an increase in Police presence in entertainment precincts over the coming months.
High Alert is a campaign advocating against the Victoria Police’s operation. It’s organiser Nevena Spirovska argues that operation does more danger to the public than good. We asked her about the campaign and her objectives.
What is High Alert and what is it in response to?
High Alert is an independent, harm-reduction campaign providing awareness, support, referrals, and legal information to people who may be affected by ‘Operation Safenight.’ From now, until August, Victoria Police will be using both uniformed and plainclothes officers to patrol night club precincts around the Chapel Street and St Kilda areas. Safenight will involve ‘inspecting’ people with sniffer dogs before they have entered nightclubs, Police posing as undercover buyers as well as checking vehicles and patrolling nightclub toilets with the aim of charging people caught with drugs.
What was the catalyst for the campaign?
‘Operation Safenight’ is a really drastic step into invading our civil-liberties and diminishing the sparkle of Melbourne’s vibrant nightlife. Sniffer dogs do not stop people from using drugs; they change the way people do drugs, which can sometimes lead to overdose and even death. This is the first time Melbourne has seen such aggressive use of sniffer dogs, whereas Sydney’s pubs, bars, and train stations flooded with them for the last decade. High Alert is about stopping this preventable harms associated with the use of sniffer dogs. We provide an overview of the issues with dogs on our facts page.
What stories have you heard from punters and club managers about this?
We’ve had people message us saying they’ve been approached by people asking to buy ‘ecstasy tablets’; most of those people approached were POC, so make of that what you will. When we’ve been on the ground observing Safenight, we’ve seen a lot of confused and irritated punters wondering why they’re being ‘randomly’ targeted by police for drug checks. No one has told us they feel safer as part of ‘Safenight.’
The campaign is gaining support from club goers, but how has the broader community responded? I saw some comments on your Facebook event after a radio interview that were interesting.
Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of a Police sniffer dog operation can tell you how intimidating and frightening it is; even if you don’t have anything on you, and especially if you come from a community that has a complicated relationship with the Police. I spoke to Tom Elliott on 3AW and the complete lack of understanding around what ‘harm-reduction’ meant was astounding; people likened minimising the harms of taking drugs with legalising the “bashing of old people.” That’s what makes campaigns like High Alert all the more important.
You mentioned harm reduction, can you explain what that term means to you?
Harm-reduction is an acknowledgement that prohibition/banning drugs does not work, no matter how extreme the consequences are. Whether it’s the death penalty, court time, or jail, people still choose to take drugs. Drug use, if it becomes problematic, should be treated as a health problem, not a legal problem. Reducing the harms associated with doing drugs through initiatives like pill-testing as well as needle and syringe programs are a positive way forward.
Melbourne seems like a pretty progressive city, were you surprised by Operation Safenight?
I was absolutely shook by this; we’ve seen an increase of sniffer dogs at festivals across Victoria, and now they’re aggressively invading our nightlife. Put simply, sniffer dogs don’t reduce the use or supply of drugs, and can lead to dangerous situations if people panic and take all the drugs they have on them at once. It’s happened many times before, and we don’t want it to happen again. For more information about why sniffer dogs are barking up the wrong tree, visit the facts page on our website.
What can people do if they’re keen to support High Alert?