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November 28, 2014

Debating Democratic policing: a missed opportunity in Victoria

Law and order politics has been relatively subdued in the current Victorian state election. It has not been absent by any means but having observed elections for many years I suggest that we have to go back some decades to find an election in which the ‘crises of crime’, ‘police numbers’ or some other criminal justice crises has been so marginal. This is perhaps even more surprising as one major element of this politics has been on the table since June yet has generated so little debate – the Victoria Police Blue Paper on the future of policing.

The Blue Paper has a range of objectives and details, but more important than any of the selected isolated issues as it raises (again) a key conceptual question that has been central to the history of modern policing: what is the nature of the relationship between the police, the government, the judiciary and the public? (The judiciary is not so central to this Blue Paper but historically has been a vital issue).

The central premise of the Blue Paper is that the government of the day can set broad policing objectives and the overall budget but it is then up to the Chief Commissioner to determine how those resources will be deployed and what specific policing policies and practices will be developed to meet broad government objectives. In essence, it means decisions such as ‘police numbers’ and ‘police on the street’, where a new police station is located, the operating hours for existing and new stations, and the kinds of police strategies and tactics to deliver objectives are to be determined by the Chief Commissioner. But it also suggests the need for ‘deeper partnerships’ with local communities so they ‘can influence how [police] resources will be used to meet local priorities’, though no details are given on how this might be structured.

There are many other aspects to the Blue Paper, including outsourcing and privatisation (my term, theirs is ‘business ownership’), seeking to focus on ‘core activities’, greater flexibility in staffing allocation to break the ‘entitlement culture’ within the workforce including greater use of auxillaries (PSOs and ‘authorised officers’ are examples) and the homeland security terminology of ‘supersites’ with ‘Real Time Fusion Centres’, hub and spoke facilities and co-location with related service providers and a not surprising focus on technology.

The central point is that the Chief Commissioner is seeking to create greater independence or freedom from government in making decisions about how to run the organisation. It is an attempt to ‘de-politicize’ policing in a dispassionate and reasoned way. However, the lack of electoral positioning on the ‘politics of policing’ in the lead up to the state election is somewhat surprising.

First, police and policing (those other bodies that have investigation and enforcement powers) is one of the few policy areas that remain largely under state control. While there have been some federal incursions it is the states that control and deliver everyday policing. This is unlike the other two main areas (in terms of expenditure) of social policy – health and education – which are heavily invested with state-commonwealth negotiations over funding, policies and programs. Perhaps both major political parties reason that they can simply ignore the Blue Paper and all its complexities and remain tied to popular policy pronouncements such as more police on the streets. But we have the Chief Commissioner basically indicating this is dysfunctional (my term) for the optimal delivery of police services.

Second, police reform in England, the location of so much policy development in general and supposed ‘home’ of the model of Australia police forces (though Ireland is more accurate), has been dramatic over the past few years. Leaving aside the ‘austerity measures’ (and approximately 20 per cent reduction in police numbers) policing has undergone significant structural reforms, most notably the introduction of locally elected representatives to oversee the delivery of policing services. It is a policy aimed at making policing more democratic: more responsive to local communities via active citizen participation, less insular and more transparent in decision-making; the provision of high quality and easily accessible information on activities and performance and improved measures to seek redress against poor police performance at individual and organisational levels, the latter including the ability for the locally elected representative to not only negotiate and determine policing priorities but also to terminate the local Chief Constable (the equivalent to our Chief Commissioner).

Perhaps in Victoria we have tired of the drama and chaos that has surround police management recently, though a quick look at police histories will show you that this is a perennial issue. England has put forward one model of democratic policing as a way ahead. Victoria Police have provided the opportunity for a larger and appropriate political debate. Shouldn’t the Victoria Police be given a detailed public response to the proposal? Even more important, shouldn’t the Victoria electorate know the positions of the parties on this vital state service: more of the same, acceptance of the police proposal, or an alternative search for more democratic policing? Do any of the parties believe enhanced democratic policing a worthwhile political objective?

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