Australia

Show of force: How NSW Police took command to combat COVID-19

Premier Gladys Berejiklian with NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller and Brigadier Mick Garraway at the Victorian border checkpoint on Sunday.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian with NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller and Brigadier Mick Garraway at the Victorian border checkpoint on Sunday.Credit:Getty

Early this year, as the summer bushfire crisis subsided, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller was looking forward to a holiday.

Heading into the winter months, traditionally a quieter time of year when police can take leave, officers were excited about having a break after their contribution to the bushfire response effort. But the reprieve would never arrive.

The next crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, was taking hold in March and government responses were ramping up. Fuller's job – and the role of the 17,000-strong force he leads – was about to be turned upside down and he would be forced to make unprecedented decisions.

At the end of March, Premier Gladys Berejiklian formally declared NSW Police as the "combat agency" that would lead the state's response to the crisis. Fuller would assume the role of state emergency operations controller.

Under ordinary emergency protocols, NSW Health is the combat agency for a pandemic and it was when COVID-19 first hit. But the state government then made the call that police would take the lead, reflecting the broader security and logistical concerns that made the pandemic more than just a public health problem. While the capacity of virus testing and hospitals was critical, border control and the movement of people around the state became major considerations.

In confronting the coronavirus threat, NSW Police would ultimately take on unusual and uncomfortable duties: managing hotel quarantine for returning travellers, enforcing unprecedented restrictions on citizens' movements, and a Victorian border operation that would end up involving more than 80 per cent of officers in the force.

In March, NSW Police, NSW Health and other agencies moved into an emergency headquarters in Homebush. By the end of the month, hotel quarantine had been established and the police would assume command of operations – with no playbook to rely on.

"We wouldn't have dedicated this much time and energy to any other single emergency in the history of the organisation. And I would say we never will again," Fuller says in an interview with the Herald.

Susan Pearce, the state health emergency operations controller and a deputy secretary with NSW Health, says the decision to put police in control of operations reflected the profound logistical demands involved. The challenges posed by COVID-19 were unprecedented for the state, so the necessary response diverged from the "normal" pandemic plan.

With police leading the emergency operations, Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant and the health workforce mobilised to quadruple intensive-care unit capacity and rapidly establish the highly successful testing and contact tracing system.

"The combat agency needs to be responsible for gathering all of the agencies together and making sure the governance is in place for those," Pearce says.

"The Premier was quite clear that Health needed to concentrate on what it was best at and we needed help with those logistical issues, which I think police are quite suited to."

Hotel quarantine quandary

Compared with Victoria – where failures in a hotel quarantine regime enforced by private security guards unleashed a major second wave of infections that claimed 768 lives and infected another 18,000 people – the NSW quarantine system has been a remarkable success.

The Victoria Police leadership had wanted nothing to do with enforcing quarantine. North of the Murray River, the story was completely different.

Police Commissioner Mick Fuller.

Police Commissioner Mick Fuller.Credit:Louise Kennerley

"I had to make a difficult decision around hotel quarantine," Fuller says.

"Is this the right role for police? And normally you would say it isn't. Normally it would be another agency or private provider would provide a quarantine-type role."

However, mindful of the Ruby Princess cruise liner debacle linked to 28 deaths and hundreds of infections, Fuller viewed returning travellers as the greatest threat to the state's health.

"And I felt from a policing perspective, we have got the size and we have got the capability to set this up quickly," he says.

The Australian Defence Force, fresh from working with NSW Police through the summer bushfire crisis, was brought in to support the operation. And private security was hired to prevent guests moving around the hotel and between rooms.

Brigadier Mick Garraway, the commander of the ADF's pandemic taskforce in NSW, says military personnel and police had forged a strong partnership during the bushfires, based on a common ethos of service and compatible command structures.

"We were only disestablishing those relationships formally through early March when we really started to shift our focus onto COVID-19. So we just changed from one crisis to the next," Garraway says.

Since March, 3100 ADF personnel have contributed to the NSW pandemic response, focused on quarantine management and the Victorian border operation. The involvement of the military significantly eased the financial burden for NSW.

As of late November, more than 95,000 travellers have been through NSW hotel quarantine. That is three times the rest of Australia put together.

In that time, six people have absconded from quarantine and two guards have contracted the coronavirus.

"When you think about the enormity of what we have achieved, that's statistically insignificant," Fuller says of the problems that have arisen.

'Not powers I would ask for'

As the government escalated restrictions on movement, forcing people to minimise exposure to others, NSW Police would be given sweeping powers to enforce the rules.

On-the-spot fines of $1000 and possible jail time were introduced for individual infringements against social distancing and self-isolation rules, with $5000 fines for businesses breaching the rules. Penalties of $11,000 were also created for anyone leaving their house without a "reasonable excuse".

"I was fearful that the powers would have a negative impact on the way the community viewed NSW Police," Fuller says.

In the early stages, he was personally reviewing every infringement. As a result, 5 per cent were withdrawn, deemed by Fuller to be "unfair" or not meeting the criteria.

Since the public health orders came into effect eight months ago, 1828 infringements have been issued in a state populated by 7.5 million people. Fuller says police are now issuing very few infringements and he is no longer worried about the impact on the force's image as the ''balance has been right''.

"And we have evolved, obviously, the way we enforce the health orders and ... we are showing reasonable levels of discretion, particularly with business because we understand that there is a real link between employment and public safety," he says.

He says police are giving businesses the opportunity to get their pandemic safety plans in order, issuing warnings for breaches of public health orders before taking more severe legal action.

Not everyone is as comfortable with the use of the powers. Defence lawyer Omar Juweinat acknowledges the small number of infringements issued but says the laws do carry the risk of abuse by police officers and cannot last forever.

"I was in a case recently where a person was charged with breaching a public health order by driving through a fast food outlet in Sydney, so there are examples out there where discretion has been misplaced," Juweinat says.

Police did clash with protestors over restrictions, with organisers of large Black Lives Matter rallies mid-year and other activists accusing police of over-reach and inconsistent enforcement that was curbing their free expression. Fuller responds that police have for years worked to enable safe protests in Sydney and he was disappointed that some organisers had launched a "very personal attack" on police.

Fuller says he looks forward to the day when the powers will be taken away, partly because it would mean the crisis was over.

"They're not powers that I would ask for, to force people to self-isolate. They are the sort of powers as a police commissioner ... that I wouldn't ask for outside of a global pandemic," he says.

Victorian border lockdown

As Victoria's second wave of infections formed, the state was closed off to the rest of the country. Preventing travel from Victoria was always going to be complicated for NSW, given the 50 crossings along the 4635 kilometre border.

What followed was an extraordinary operation that ended up involving the vast majority of the state's police officers.

Between July and the border reopening on November 23, 14,000 NSW Police officers would rotate through shifts at the border, out of a force of 17,000. Divers from the water police at Balmain, detectives from Byron Bay, prosecutors from around Sydney – those deployed to the border were drawn from all kinds of units across the state.

NSW Police stop and question drivers at a checkpoint on the NSW-Victoria border in Albury.

NSW Police stop and question drivers at a checkpoint on the NSW-Victoria border in Albury.Credit:Getty Images

More than 100,000 shifts – with 500 police on duty on an average day – they would oversee the passage of 5 million vehicles across the border.

"This was one of the largest policing operations in the history of the NSW Police Force, and one I am extremely proud of," Fuller says.

Pearce says that, while the critical role of health workers must be acknowledged, the role played by NSW Police since the pandemic took hold has been massive.

"We could not have done this without NSW Police and I think there is just no question about that," she says.

Police and Emergency Services Minister David Elliott is effusive in his praise of Fuller, Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys and NSW Health's Chant for their leadership and in uniting two very different agencies.

"We didn’t get everything right but I think we got the vast majority... given there was no precedent," Elliott says.

"I just think as we enter Christmas, our ability to return to semi-normal life has a lot to do with the professionalism of NSW Police."

Now, as NSW and Australia establish control over the virus, Fuller welcomes the "positive evolution" in the health orders allowing more movement and activity.

The Premier, Commissioner Fuller and Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott during a press conference at the height of the pandemic.

The Premier, Commissioner Fuller and Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott during a press conference at the height of the pandemic. Credit:Dean Sewell

"It's a good thing for community confidence in the way the government and police are handling the matter, and for me it also gives me confidence that we are getting closer to a day when the health orders will be less relevant," he says.

While the focus remains on controlling the immediate pandemic situation, police are also turning their attention to the potential for a surge in crime during the economic downturn.

Fuller says the COVID-19 restrictions themselves have not caused family violence and crimes in the home to spike significantly, as initially feared, but long-term unemployment could undo years of progress on crime rates.

"I don't want to be the commissioner that loses control of crime on the streets of NSW," he says.

More than three years into the job, with two crises defining 2020, Fuller says any fatigue is balanced by pride in the way police have performed.

"I need a holiday, don't get me wrong. But I am COVID-proud. I think the cops have really stepped up."

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