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ACT Policing needs to think beyond 'banging up crooks'

By John Coyne

The ACT Chief Police Officer, Justine Saunders, had plenty to be happy about last week. ACT Policing's annual report revealed that, last financial year, the territory's crime levels remained stable.

Unfortunately for Saunders, the Canberra Liberal's police spokeswoman, Giulia Jones, saw things differently, and focussed her energy on the ACT's low police numbers. As a result, last week's annual reports hearing failed to highlight a very important policing development in the ACT: the community's apparent increased trust in its police.

For many years, ACT Policing has sought to implement the last great police management fad: community policing. This fad called for a shift from the traditional security and enforcement-focussed policing model to one in which police worked in partnership with the community to solve crime.

If this community-policing approach was working, the ACT ought to have seen an increase in prosecutions or a decrease in crime by now. However, despite the best efforts of all involved, neither benefit materialised.

In the face of stable crime levels, there has been an increase in calls to ACT Policing. Saunders testified to a Legislative Assembly committee hearing that there was a 16.7 per cent overall increase in calls last financial year. Interestingly, this figure includes an increasing number of lower-priority demands for police services.

The ACT's operational police often report that a large percentage of their work involves dealing with domestic violence or mental-health issues. Last financial year, 44.7 per cent of all assaults reported to police related to family violence – an increase of 18.9 percentage points on the previous year.

Nonetheless, increasing callouts may indeed be a product of ACT Policing's success at becoming the territory's "go-to" problem solvers, rather than any actual increase in crime.

It's interesting that, with these facts, Saunders didn't take the easy road, demanding some arbitrary number of new officers. The Chief Police Officer's decision to consider further the "quantum, skills and experience" of any increase makes good practical sense.

ACT Policing has a very real opportunity to be at the leading edge of policing in Australia and globally. With community trust, it could move further away from an enforcement regime focussed on arrests and seizure, to a broader focus on interventions and problem-solving.

Saunders will need to be very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. ACT Policing has a proud history, with a strong organisational culture committed to service to the community in traditional-law enforcement. And we still need this type of investigative law enforcement.

But building the next-generation police organisation involves more than increasing numbers. The challenge is how to develop the sort of police force that is as capable of comfortably apprehending an armed offender with minimum force, as it is helping to refer a young person for interventions for drug addiction or mental-health treatment.

Saunders will need to create a more networked police force that is capable of working seamlessly with other elements of the ACT government. And this police force will need to believe that there is as much intrinsic policing value spending time with domestic violence victims as taking part in a high-speed pursuit.

With any luck, Canberra's finest will soon be bolstered by new police, with new training and a new mindset collectively focussed on solving problems, not necessarily "banging up crooks".

Originally published by: The Canberra Times on 13 Nov 2017