More police is not the answer to tackling crime

We’re still not sure which was more confronting: the images, night after night, of anti-lockdown protesters aggressively occupying Melbourne’s streets – or the sea of helmeted riot police armed with foam-tipped bullets, smoke grenades and pepper spray, accompanied by the “Bearcat” armoured car, a counter-terrorist vehicle designed to protect its occupants from small arms fire and explosives.

While it was sobering, particularly in the last days of lockdown, to realise that our police had quietly been amassing such frankly worrying capabilities, it should not have been a surprise. Rather, it is a predictable development, the tip of the spear, as it were, for an organisation that has become the biggest state force in the country, thanks to two decades of unquestioning support from both major political parties, both caught in a “tough on crime” electoral arms race.

Riot police move in to control a violent protest.Credit:Justin McManus

As reporters Chris Vedelago and Royce Millar detailed on Saturday, we now spend roughly the same on policing as NSW, even though that state is three times the size and has 1.4 million more people. In just over two decades the police budget has tripled, to $4 billion and 22,000 personnel. Growth in Victoria’s criminal justice system spending has outstripped that of education and health since 2013.

Meanwhile, the Victorian prison population nearly doubled in the decade to 2019, at least partly due to successive tough-on-crime governments tightening bail laws and abolishing remission and suspended sentences, which saw lower-level offenders escape prison terms or serve shorter custodial sentences. Victoria now arrests and jails people at levels not seen since the brutal days of the 19th century.

Has all this policing and imprisoning made us safer? Apparently not: although the crime rate did drop during the pandemic, it has, in general terms, stubbornly risen since a decade ago. In the year to March 31, 2020 the overall rate was up 4.3 per cent, and youth crime had risen by 10 per cent. 

Rather, there are good reasons to believe we are in danger of becoming over-policed, that Victoria Police, with its burgeoning ranks, booming budgets and ever-growing arsenal of exotic equipment is swallowing resources that might be used more effectively elsewhere in the “softer” arena of crime prevention.

Victorian upper house crossbencher Fiona Patten, currently chairing a parliamentary inquiry into the state’s justice system, is one who believes an over-reliance on police can become self-defeating. “We always say that we can’t arrest ourselves out of the drug problem or any number of other social problems,” Patten says. “Yet still we keep trying. Our answer is always the same: hire more police.”

This masthead is not advocating we “defund the police” – the slogan used by activists in the United States following the murder of George Floyd.

But some of the more moderate ideas from that movement are worthy of consideration, such as reallocating increases in fattened police budgets to social services such as mental health, conflict resolution and restorative justice to nip low-level crime in the bud and reduce reoffending.

Similarly, many of those we incarcerate, clothe and feed at enormous expense are of negligible risk to the community and would surely be better served by some form of non-custodial order.

What does it say about a justice system that in April this year, for the first time, there were more women in prison on remand – waiting for their charges to be heard – than those who had been sentenced? Or that Indigenous women are now jailed at 20 times the rate of non-Indigenous women?

We can’t blame the police. As they say, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But our politicians, foremost among them our “law and order” Premier, Daniel Andrews, know better. How refreshing it would be, for once, if they skipped the politics of pragmatism and engineered a solution that actually worked.

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