‘A lot of hurt and anger’: how the queer community feels let down by NSW police

<span>Members of the New South Wales police at the Sydney Mardi Gras in 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Mark Baker/AP</span>
Members of the New South Wales police at the Sydney Mardi Gras in 2023.Photograph: Mark Baker/AP

Two decades after intense police brutality against Australia’s queer community at Sydney’s first Mardi Gras in 1978, police began marching in the parade in a gesture of solidarity.

But that 26-year tradition was broken on Monday after the Mardi Gras asked the police not to march after allegations that a police officer murdered two men – Jesse Baird, who the officer had had a prior casual relationship with, and Baird’s partner, Luke Davies.

Advocates who have been calling for police to no longer march in the parade for years say the alleged stalking and alleged murder of the couple was the final straw amid growing discontent with police presence at the annual event.

Related: A grim find led to a worse end: the case of two missing men that horrified Sydney

“It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Evan Zijl from Pride in Protest.

Last Friday, the day after police revealed they had grave concerns for Davies and Baird’s whereabouts after their personal possessions were found covered in blood in a skip bin in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Sen Const Beau Lamarre was charged with the killings.

Police allege the couple were killed last Monday by Lamarre at Baird’s home in Sydney’s eastern suburbs using his force-issued handgun. Police also allege Lamarre hired a white van to dispose of their bodies, which have now been found.

The case, just days out from the nation’s biggest celebration of LGBTQ+ rights, has left the queer community reeling.

After concerns were voiced after the tragedy over the participation of police in the parade, Mardi Gras announced it had requested police to not march in the 2024 parade to give the community space to mourn and grieve. Lamarre once marched as part of the New South Wales police contingent at Mardi Gras.

“It is almost impossible to describe the feeling in the community at the moment, [it] is an overwhelming amount of grief and anger,” Charlie Murphy from Pride in Protest told reporters on Tuesday.

Then came controversial comments made by the NSW police commissioner, Karen Webb, inflaming an already tinderbox atmosphere.

On Monday, Webb described the case as a “crime of passion”. She later apologised after the comments drew fierce criticism, saying they were intended to distinguish the case from a gay hate crime. But the damage was already done.

“The comment suggests that there is a fundamental misunderstanding from police on how relationships in domestic violence works,” Zijl says.

Webb again drew criticism after she responded to criticisms over her delay in speaking publicly after the alleged murders by quoting Taylor Swift lyrics.

“There will always be haters. Haters like to hate. Isn’t that what Taylor [Swift] says?” Webb told the breakfast TV program Seven’s Sunrise. “This, though, of course is a complex matter. All we need to do now is find Jesse and Luke so their families know where they are. That’s my priority.”

Police ‘unnecessarily defensive’

Justin Ellis, a criminologist at the University of Newcastle who has focused on gay hate crimes, said the decision to disinvite police after the alleged murders cannot be viewed in isolation.

He says a number of other issues have sown discontent and recalibrated the queer communities relationship with police.

“It’s all coalescing around the 2024 Mardi Gras parade,” Ellis says.

One of these was the scathing findings of a world-first inquiry into gay hate crimes that examined cases in NSW between 1970 and 2010. The inquiry found police failed to properly investigate potential gay hate crimes and must rebuild trust with the LGBTQ+ community.

Justice John Sackar, who presided over the inquiry, was critical of police conduct during, saying the force had “in significant respects” engaged with the inquiry in a way that was “adversarial or unnecessarily defensive”, including by belatedly requesting extensions and not acknowledging poor historical record keeping.

The police are yet to commit to implementing the recommendations of the report but, on Sunday, Webb apologised for police conduct into investigating the deaths via a statement sent to the media.

Some, like 78er – the term used for the protesters in the first Mardi Gras – Diana Fieldes, were suspicious at the timing of the apology: “They didn’t offer one when the report came down at the end of last year.”

Tension between police and the Mardi Gras have been escalating. In December, two-thirds of Mardi Gras members voted to abandon a memorandum of understanding with the NSW police, established in 2014, which allows Mardi Gras to have input into police presence at the festival.

The accord was set up after the brutal arrest of teenager Jamie Jackson Reed at Mardi Gras in 2013. Reed had been slammed on to the pavement in a leg sweep manoeuvre by police.

“The point was to establish a more formal relationship with police and to facilitate better dialogue on how Mardi Gras was policed, but I think what we see is that could only go so far in addressing concerns of community,” Ellis said.

Ellis said this there was also anger at police use of drug detection dogs at the Mardi Gras.

“This is really about a reevaluation of norms about how the community is policed and the role of police,” he says.

‘There’s a lot of hurt and anger’

Not all in the community have backed Mardi Gras’ decision to disinvite police.

“I’m very, very disappointed in the decision,” said 78er Peter Murphy.

Murphy is concerned that it will damage the community’s relationship with police, and also isolate members of the LGBTQI+ community who regularly march with the police in the parade.

“Back in 1998, when [the police] first joined the parade, I was really happy because I felt that it was like a victory for us and our community that this had happened and we should keep building on it,” he said.

“This decision cuts right across that.”

The state’s premier, Chris Minns, backed police marching, saying not doing so would be a step backwards. Alex Greenwich, the independent MP for Sydney and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, said he respected the decision of the Mardi Gras board, adding it would not have been a decision made lightly, but he also believes police should march.

“There’s a lot of emotions coming to the surface here. There’s a lot of hurt and anger within the community and Mardi Gras as a board is entitled to reflect that in what they have done.”

The Australian federal police issued a statement late Tuesday saying its officers would not march in the parade.

“The AFP had planned to march with NSW police in this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade,” the spokesperson said. “Noting news reports that the Sydney Mardi Gras board had asked NSW police not to march, the AFP has also made the decision not to march.

“This decision was not taken lightly but we acknowledge how some in the community are feeling about the blue uniform.”

For Queensland police officer Michael Gardiner, whose wife took him to his first Mardi Gras parade in 2004 days after he had come out to her as gay, he fears the decision by Mardi Gras could unfairly “punish those who are working hard to bring change”.

But he has also seen how such a decision can be a catalyst for change.

In 2021, Brisbane Pride disinvited uniformed police from marching in the city’s parade. Gardiner, who works as an officer in Brisbane, said at first he was upset by the news but then he realised the decision likely wasn’t without reason.

It later led to the Queensland police force apologising to the queer community for historic laws which criminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults.

“It was a really effective catalyst for us, it was like ‘OK well we haven’t done enough in this space’, and it did allow us to drive things forward,” Gardiner says.