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Punitive policing doesn’t make Aboriginal people safer

Daniel Daylight Just Reinvest NSW Sarah Hopkins
Last edited: April 2, 2024

Community solutions can. The current model makes First Nations people feel scared, marginalised and angry.

If you are waiting on the platform at a train station and see a pair of police officers walking your way, do you a) feel safe, b) get nervous, or c) start emptying your pockets because that’s what they’re going to make you do anyway.

This is a question about a culture of policing and an experience of oppression that pervades Aboriginal lives. It is about the inherent racism of systems that do not support Aboriginal people to lead their own solutions but instead focus on controlling them.

Anyone who has worked with Aboriginal young people in the criminal justice system knows how the story plays out, or a version of it. With the benefit of handheld footage it is now reaching a broader audience. At some point the young person reacts – swears or runs or resists – and at some point police bring their force to bear. Too often we end up with another Aboriginal young person in a police or prison cell. And too often, as we saw earlier this month in Surry Hills, that young person has a cut face or bruised ribs.

Earlier this year, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) found that Aboriginal young people constitute 72% of young people who are subject to a suspect target management plan (STMP) – under which, the Lecc found, police conduct ongoing and repeated stops, searches or visits to the young person’s home.

Mt Druitt in Western Sydney is home to the biggest Aboriginal community in Sydney, one which has a median age of 18. It has also received more fines than any other area in the state – currently close to $23.5m. A recent report has documented the arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of bicycle helmet laws, particularly against young people in Western Sydney. The research also points to the repeat issue of penalty notices on the same day.

It is no surprise that entrenched in our criminal justice system are policies and procedures that negatively impact Aboriginal communities. They have been the subject of numerous inquiries and reports that include sensible recommendations like raising the age that young people can be charged, legislating arrest as a last resort, reviewing the standard operating procedures for the conduct of strip searches, and ending the use of STMPs for young people.

But something more fundamental needs to happen here. The model and the mindset need to change.

“Proactive” policing is a model that encourages police-initiated contact and is meant to make citizens feel safe and protected. It is wheeled out at election time with a promise of more dollars and more cops and more criminals behind bars, with the New South Wales government committing a record $4bn to police in the last budget. For many Aboriginal young people who are stopped in the street for no valid reason, the idea that policing is for public safety is inconceivable.

The recent events in the US and public outcry have highlighted what has long been a terrible truth – that for ourdaniel day First Nations communities this model of policing makes people feel scared, marginalised and angry. And so it begs the question that communities across America are beginning to ask: how can public resources be invested towards better outcomes? From a very emotional debate is arising a long overdue and much needed discussion about police divestment.

What could this look like? Asking First Nations communities would be a good place to start. What is going to make them feel safe? What will make mothers feel confident that their children won’t be harassed when they walk down the street? What will make elders feel protected?

Beyond tokenistic police Aboriginal consultative committees, the government needs to be open to listening and implementing deep structural reform to address the symptoms of a system that has treated Aboriginal people as criminals since invasion.

We know that in some places the police are listening and the community is leading. The Maranguka Justice Reinvestment initiative in Bourke in far west NSW is an example. Every morning police attend the Maranguka Community Hub to talk about incidents in the past 24-hours involving at-risk youth and about what services can do to better support families. The goal is police not getting involved. The outcome has been a significant decrease in juvenile offending, one of a number of targets set by the Bourke Tribal council in its strategy Growing Our Kids Up Safe, Smart and Strong.

Genuine police community partnerships involve police at the local level developing a new culture that is prepared to tackle racism and recognise the need for self-determination. If we are real about this, there needs to be a shift in resources out of policing and prisons and into community-led solutions that address underlying drivers of crime, which have little to do with policing and everything to do with community aspirations and resilience. Ultimately, that means a shift in power from government to community. That is the crux of community-led justice reinvestment.

In a long line of inquiries since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the 2018 Pathways to Justice report of the Australian Law Reform Commission set out a roadmap for addressing the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in our criminal justice system and prisons. As they always do, Aboriginal communities generously gave their time to participate in extensive consultations. But yet again the commonwealth government has failed to implement the recommendations or even formally respond.

First Nations people have been calling for change for too long. It is time to listen.

[This blog is a repost of the Guardian Australia article ‘Punitive policing doesn’t make Aboriginal people safer. Community solutions can.’  Visit Just Reinvest to support and read more.]
Daniel Daylight
Manager, Just Reinvest Mt Druitt

Daniel Daylight is a proud Gamilaraay (NSW) man who has family ties to the Gubi Gubi nation (QLD), and is living on Darug land. He is Manager of Just Reinvest Mt Druitt. At the time of writing, Daniel was an executive committee member of Just Reinvest NSW and helped establish the youth Koori court in NSW; he was also program manager of the Creating Futures team at Weave Youth & Community Services, and a director and lifelong member of the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service.

Just Reinvest NSW

Just Reinvest NSW supports Aboriginal communities to explore and establish justice reinvestment initiatives and advocates for systemic changes that build safer and stronger communities. Our goal is to reduce Aboriginal incarceration in NSW.

Sarah Hopkins

Sarah Hopkins is an Australian criminal lawyer and novelist. She is a lawyer with the Aboriginal Legal Service in Sydney and has worked in the area of social justice and prisoner rights for many years.

At the time of writing, Sarah was co-chair of Just Reinvest NSW and managing solicitor of justice projects at the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT Ltd.