Melbourne transport officers: the ‘Gestapo’ or the ‘Miami Vice’ experience

My wife and I now live in Melbourne, but a couple of years ago we were just visiting from Sydney on holiday.

We caught a tram from Essendon (a suburb north west of the Melbourne CBD) into the city for some sightseeing and lunch. My wife had a concession card because she was a student in Sydney at the time and so she bought a concession ticket on the tram. I bought a normal adult ticket.

The tram trundled on towards the city. A little while later two men got on and sat opposite us on the tram.

One of the men was bald or had a closely-shaved head, was wearing sun-glasses, a white t-shirt jeans and a zipped-up beige leather jacket looking as if he’d just finished shooting a scene from Miami Vice (you remember the 1980s cops show with Don Johnson).

He looked at us.

We looked at him.

The tram continued on its way.

A few minutes later, he nonchalantly unzipped his jacket to reveal an FBI-like badge dangling from his neck and announces to us and the tram: “Melbourne transport police – ticket inspection”.

We got into trouble because though my wife had a valid New South Wales student card it was not valid in Victoria (Australia’s different state rules are a topic for a whole separate blog post) so she was not actually entitled to a student discount on the fare.

We explained that we were visiting and were unaware that my wife was not allowed a student ticket.

Mr Miami Vice believed us and we got off with a warning rather than a hefty fine.

But the incident stuck in my head principally because of the demeanour and dress of the undercover ticket inspector, who had clearly watched too many cop shows.

He was a ridiculous caricature and I always laugh at the memory of him coolly unzipped his leather jacket to reveal his Melbourne transport officer badge.

As I mentioned earlier, we now live in Melbourne and I have come to experience, vicariously anyway, the other persona of the train and tram transport police.

They’re officially called “authorised officers” and employed by the Victorian government.

They wear uniforms and demeanours that remind me of the Gestapo or maybe the secret police of East Germany with a twist of a 1980s fashion faux pas thrown in as well.

Their jackets are made of grey plastic-like material with black trimming and they usually roam the trains in packs, wearing scowls.

If you live in Melbourne and ride the train or trams regularly, you will more than likely have encountered them.

Now I’ll say upfront that some of them are courteous and wear a smile, but many of them are surely picked for their menacing looks and deadly stares.

Like the secret police, they enjoy playing mind games by boarding the train, huddling at the entrance and doing nothing but looking across at the passengers until at some point (perhaps a signal transmitted directly to the brain) and they announce “ticket inspection, please have your tickets ready”.

Invariably there is someone who does not have a ticket.

Immediately they are surrounded by a group of ticket inspectors who begin the interrogation. Everyone looks, you can’t help yourself.

Then they escort the passenger off the train and as it pulls out the station you stare out the window and see the poor passenger surrounded by these figures in grey and black with notepads, glares and fingers pointing.

And there’s a part of you that wonders if these passengers will ever be seen or heard from again, especially if they refuse to comply or provide adequate proof of identification.

Perhaps it’s just coincidence, perhaps it’s the case the most people who fare evade are minorities with a darker shade of skin colour, but seems that if you’re a person of colour you’re more than likely to be hauled off the train by an authorised officer and asked to provide incontrovertible proof of who you are.

Not speaking english or being a teenager are too other reasons to be attract their attention.

Lately there have been a lot of inspections on the Craigieburn line – the line I ride every week day – sometimes during rush hour, but always once the train has emptied out and we’re heading into the suburbs.

Once a bald, nasty-looking inspector tried to put the fear of God into two teenage boys who were sitting with their skate-boards and baseball caps turned the wrong way round.

“How will you feel if I told your parents you got a $70 fine…” were the words I distinctly heard him utter with the kindness of a rattlesnake.

Scouring the internet I have come across some disturbing evidence which confirms that there certainly are some bad eggs in the ranks of Melbourne’s authorised officers.

I found an ABC news broadcast from 2010 showing authorised officers assaulting passengers in a bulletin called “Melbourne’s thuggish ticket inspectors”.

Digging further I found it was based on a damning report by the Victorian ombudsman, which found that in around 30,000 instances where infringement notices were issued, nearly half were withdrawn.

The report also provides a number of examples of what has happened to some commuters who have found themselves under attack from these rogue officers including this case:

Incident 1: 9 March 2010 – Ringwood Railway Station

On 9 March 2010 an authorised officer in plain clothes pushed two youths from a moving train onto the platform at the Ringwood Railway Station. This incident was anonymously reported to the department. The officer was part of a four person patrol. The officer resigned. Following a police investigation, the officer was charged with two counts of recklessly causing injury. File notes disclosed that the officer admitted in his pre-authorisation interview to having a speeding fine; obtaining a learner permit by making a false statement; obtaining an identity card by lying; and shoplifting.

You can watch what happened via this CCTV footage provided by the ombudsman.

There are numerous other examples in the report.

Anyway, you should know your rights if you end up in the hands of an authorised officer.

They are summarised here on the Public Transport Victoria website.

If you get hauled off the train, always ask to see their badge and ID and write down their names.

Make a note of any threats made against you and never hand over any money.

Always keep in mind that authorised officers are required under law to act with the “highest degree of integrity and professionalism” at all times”

This applies whether they are acting out a Miami Vice fantasy or dressed like a character from the Gestapo.