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Random search powers: are they working?

A recent Office of Police Integrity report shows that ‘random stop and search’ powers cannot be shown to reduce crime or improve community safety.

The Summary Offences and Control of Weapons Acts Amendment Act 2009 provides police with additional powers in public spaces, including:

  • random search powers (including strip searches) in designated areas;
  • directing people to move-on from a certain area; and
  • imposing fines and issue arrests for drunk or disorderly conduct, while creating a new offence of ‘disorderly conduct’.

No empirical evidence, domestically or internationally, demonstrates any correlation between the granting of this form of police powers and reducing crime rates. In fact, available evidence suggests that such ‘zero tolerance’ policing methods tend to divert people to places without police presence or divert them into the commission of more serious crimes.

The OPI was scathing in its criticism of Victoria Police’s accountability under these new laws. The OPI report said:

Unfortunately, there are data integrity issues and suggestions of under-reporting which mean Victoria Police is not currently meeting legislative reporting requirements. Accurate data collection is an important tool for enhancing transparency and accountability.  Victoria Police must address the flaws in statistical reporting to enable an automatic report to be generated which meets the legislative requirements for reporting…

Given the lack of information and data available, the OPI could not show that the powers are effective at reducing crime or improving community safety.  The OPI report concludes that ‘[i]nconsistencies with definitions and statistical data collection make it difficult to establish how effective ‘stop and search’ powers have been at reducing knife-related crime in Victoria.’

When introduced, community groups argued that these powers did not contain sufficient protections to ensure that the powers are exercised appropriately. They feared that the policy will also prove to be discriminatory in effect, with people experiencing homelessness, young community members, those suffering mental illness and indigenous people to be disproportionately affected.

While the OPI found little evidence of the arbitrary use of the powers or the targeting of particular groups, Smart Justice spokesman Hugh de Kretser said the lack of data and accountability measures were preventing appropriate transparency in this regard. ‘We can’t have a situation where police powers are toughened at the same time that accountability is weakened – particularly given the disproportionate impact of these powers on vulnerable groups – including young people, the disadvantaged, and new arrival minority groups.’

We need smart, evidence-based policy responses to community safety and crime. This report shows that without sound evidence supporting increased police powers, we can’t be confident that our streets are safer.

This article was originally published at Briefed, the Herald Sun law blog. Read the original article.

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