24 April 2020

Police promise assault charges for people who spit, cough on frontline workers or public

| Michael Weaver
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Canberra police officer on patrol in Civic.

An ACT Policing officer on patrol in Civic during the period of social distancing. Photo: Region Media.

Canberra’s chief police officer says people who cough or spit on emergency services workers or members of the public during the COVID-19 pandemic will be charged with assault.

Chief Police Officer Ray Johnson said police officers have been faced with people who have joked that they have coronavirus and have attempted to cough or spit at them. Police are reminding the community that threats involving COVID-19 and spitting or coughing on emergency workers could end in serious penalties, including jail.

“Alarmingly, there has been a notable change in people’s behaviour in recent weeks to use the seriousness of COVID-19 to threaten and scare people about their safety,” CPO Johnson said.

“This callous behaviour will not be tolerated, and I would like to remind the public that coughing and spitting on ACT Policing officers or anyone is considered an assault. Assault is a criminal charge with serious penalties including jail time.

“Police have laid charges and will continue to lay charges if such matters are seen. It’s not something to be treated as a joke and something we take very seriously.”

A woman has already faced court charged with assault after coughing in a police officer’s face and claiming to have COVID-19 while being arrested for another matter on the weekend.

Two men faced the ACT Magistrates Court in March charged with acting to cause public alarm.

On Wednesday, ACT policing released footage of a man allegedly coughing or sneezing in the direction of other passengers on Canberra’s light rail network.

The footage, from almost a month ago (26 March), shows the man sitting and sneezing or coughing, and then in a heated discussion with another passenger. Police are seeking to identify the man.

Anyone with information that could assist police is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000, or via the Crime Stoppers ACT website. Please quote reference 6514592.

CPO Johnson said these incidents were serious and concerning for ACT Policing members and the community.

“Coughing and spitting on someone is disgusting at all times, and in the COVID-19 environment, there is additional risk to safety.

“I am proud of the way our officers involved in these incidents have remained professional in their response and continue to follow appropriate health and safety advice.

“Our COVID-19 Taskforce is continuing to ensure we have the right personal protective equipment available to members and providing regular, updated guidance when needed.”

Based on current health advice, officers will wear personal protective equipment (PPE) in certain circumstances including when dealing with people who have or are suspected to have COVID-19, or at any other time they think there is a risk to themselves or others.

Officers will continue to maintain enhanced hygiene measures and, where practical, will ensure there is a 1.5-metre distance during interactions with the public.

“The majority of our community are adhering to social distancing and current health directions, and I thank them for their cooperation.

“There have been a number of cases where police haven’t laid charges because of the way members of the public have behaved,” CPO Johnson said.

To date, ACT Policing has received more than 740 reports of COVID-19 related incidents. No infringements have been issued.

Several people have been charged with criminal offences for behaviour linked to COVID-19 but not related to health directives.

CPO Johnson also reminded people to not become complacent ahead of the Anzac Day long weekend.

He said while the vast majority of people are doing the right thing, police will again be targeting areas where increased numbers of people have been gathering, including the Kingston foreshore.

“We will have a strong presence on our roads where we continue to see, with fewer cars on the road, people putting everyone’s safety at risk speeding at higher ranges.

“We will also be out in our community, participating in compliance checks with government agencies and responding to other COVID-19 reports as needed,” CPO Johnson said.

For all general COVID-19 inquiries, including to make a report of non-compliance of the public health directions with referrals to ACT Health Protection Services, ACT Policing or Access Canberra Fair Trading, the COVID-19 Helpline is 6207 7244 (8:00 am to 8:00 pm, 7 days a week) or online on the Access Canberra website.

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The police can lay all the charges they want but if our magistrates don’t back that up with real penalties then it is largely a waste of effort.

So based on the typical efforts of our “wise” magistrates, we can probably expect to see a series of ineffectual “slap on the wrist” penalties if the police even bother to lay charges.

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