A NSW ‘predictive’ policing initiative appears to be as much about presuming guilt among young Indigenous people as it is about preventing crime. By Mike Seccombe.

‘Predictive’ policing in NSW

New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller.
New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller.

The New South Wales police describe it as “predictive” policing. In effect, say its critics, it amounts to targeted harassment on the basis of suspicion. Mostly its targets are Aboriginal, and in many cases they are children, some as young as nine or 10.

Its proper name is the Suspect Target Management Plan (STMP) and the idea, as Police Commissioner Mick Fuller explained to a state parliament estimates committee last week, is to identify people likely to commit offences, then implement “strategies … to disrupt their activity to minimise opportunities for them to commit crimes”.

Stopping crime before it happens sounds like a fine idea. But the limited evidence we have – not Fuller’s evidence, which was very cagey about the secretive police program – paints an unattractive picture. It suggests that a policy touted as being focused on serious crime is often used to harass petty offenders or people yet to be proved guilty, to disproportionately target Aboriginal people and other minority groups, and to pick on kids. It suggests a pattern of police exceeding their legal powers and fostering resentment in vulnerable communities, rather than helping them.

The policy involves cops making regular visits to the homes of targeted individuals, repeatedly stopping and searching them on the street, moving them on from public places, letting them know in various ways that they are under suspicion and being watched. In many cases, police are doing this to school-age children.

This much we know, because Fuller told the committee: in the past couple of years, 1800 people have been subjected to STMP policing and about a quarter of them were minors. Almost 56 per cent of those targeted were Indigenous.

Beyond that, we have scant detail, at least from official sources. We have no idea how targets – described by Fuller as “potential recidivist offenders” – are identified. We don’t know what behaviour gets them on the list, or what sort of crimes police are hoping to prevent. We don’t know how people get off the list and, above all, we don’t know what evidence the cops have to show that it works.

The formula for predictive policing is a secret. One does exist, though. In response to questioning in the committee from Greens MP David Shoebridge, Fuller offered an assurance that the force did have a formal document setting out a “risk assessment template”.

When Shoebridge asked to see it, Fuller was unco-operative.

“In the past we have had legal advice that has been sought through different processes and we have not provided it, but if I could just take that on notice in terms of whether that is something that we would provide or not,” Fuller said.

Given that the police have resisted divulging it for the 17-odd years the STMP has operated, one would have to suspect “not”. Despite the police stonewalling, though, we have lately got some insight into the operation of STMP.

A couple of weeks ago, a study of the scheme’s operation was released by the Youth Justice Coalition. Its authors are Dr Vicki Sentas, a senior lecturer at the University of NSW faculty of law, and Camilla Pandolfini of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, working in collaboration with law students and other lawyers with various legal aid centres.

Given the refusal of the police to provide data, Sentas says, the project was a matter of “putting together the jigsaw pieces, to get a rough partial understanding of this highly secretive policing strategy”.

“We worked from the ground up with the people who had been policed, looking at their files, criminal histories, court records, police fact sheets, working with their lawyers,” she says.

Sentas admits the picture is far from complete, involving limited data from 10 of the state’s 76 police Local Area Commands. But even in its incompleteness the assembled data, and particularly its case studies, were damning.

Apart from revealing a disproportionate use of the STMP strategies against Indigenous people, the report found that “oppressive policing” through repeated and confrontational contact damaged community relations; that it had no observable impact on crime prevention, and actually served to undermine other, beneficial rehabilitation programs; and that it encouraged police to exceed their “lawful use of powers … thereby exposing police to reduced efficacy and civil action”.

The report notes that any NSW police officer can nominate an individual as a target, after which an “intelligence package” is assembled and presented to the targeting team, usually the local crime management unit.

But beyond that point, the process is opaque. STMP policy and risk assessment tools are not publicly available.

“The details of the risk assessment that is carried out, including the risk factors taken into account and how those factors are weighted and measured, are not available to the person placed on the STMP,” the report says. “It is impossible to assess the claim that the STMP is accountable because it deploys risk assessment tools, if these tools and the assumptions underlying them are not made available for scrutiny.”

The case studies, however, cast significant doubt on the seriousness of the threat posed by some people on the STMP list. As Shoebridge put it to The Saturday Paper, they showed kids being targeted for “walking down the street or riding the trains while black and wearing Nautica clothing”.

He is referring to one example from the report, of a 16-year-old identified as “Dean”, who had one or two convictions for graffiti and minor trespass and one caution for possession of pot when he was 15. On the basis of this very minor criminal history, he was stopped and searched 23 times in 10 months.

The grounds cited by the police for this harassment included: “that persons of interest who wear Nautica clothing are ‘known to commit criminal damage offences’, that young people who get on the last carriage of a train and wear Nautica are known to commit criminal damage; and that Dean was with a group of young people.”

Sentas rather charitably suggests that the police action in Dean’s case, and many others in similar circumstances, might be based on an erroneous understanding of police powers.

“The suspicion is that this happens routinely and that the police don’t understand the limits of their powers,” she says. “They take the fact that someone is on the STMP as reasonable cause to search, or to move them on.”

But it isn’t.

“If you’re going to stop someone in the street and search them, you must have reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed,” Sentas says.

“We identified three cases where a young person has been charged with drug possession offences, and where the search the police conducted was done only on the basis that the person was on STMP. In those three cases, the magistrate threw the cases out, because the police had no reasonable suspicion of an offence.”

Neither dress sense nor preference of train carriage is grounds for a police search.

Nor, says Sentas, “can you search someone on the basis of what they might have done in the past. But that is the entire basis of the STMP.”

Worse, she says, the research turned up a number of young people who had never been convicted of anything, although they were “known to police”.

And then there is the matter of age. The Youth Justice Coalition report found an 11-year-old subject to STMP. But, as Fuller revealed in estimates, it was actually worse than that. There was a nine-year-old and at least two 10-year-olds on the list. He was vague about why they were subject to STMP.

“They targeted a nine-year-old,” Shoebridge says. “We need to emphasise that. You cannot be held criminally responsible if you’re nine. They can’t arrest you [or] take you to Children’s Court. The youngest age of potential criminal responsibility is 10 and that’s only in circumstances where the Children’s Court has determined the child sufficiently mature as to be aware of the consequences, the substance of their conduct. There is a presumption against criminal responsibility for kids nine to 14.”

Shoebridge says there is “no role for police if you’re nine”, unless it is to inform welfare agencies of a problem.

“There often are very complex reasons why young people might be committing offences,” Sentas says. “The research is clear: the causes of offending relate to poverty, unemployment, family dysfunctionality, low education. Those are the causes that need to be addressed.”

In other jurisdictions where STMP-like policies are in force, in the United States and Britain, she says, policing is part of a broader matrix of responses, involving “extensive social services where community workers work with families”.

“The STMP is simply a proactive policing strategy that doesn’t look at the causes of crime. It aims to scare people out of committing crimes.”

We can’t even be sure it does that.

“The basic evaluation work hasn’t been done,” Sentas says.

Her report recommends that the police submit data on the STMP to the state’s Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research for analysis.

It hardly seems a radical suggestion.

In estimates last week, Shoebridge raised the example of Dean, the graffiti artist stopped and searched 23 times in 10 months, and pointed out it engaged a “significant amount of [police] resources”.

“True,” Fuller said, “but I guess if your house had not been graffitied as a byproduct of that, is it a good result? I guess from Dean’s perspective, did we divert him from a life of crime through that plus other activities? I guess that is the key for me.”

That is the key: does it actually work? Shoebridge asked for evidence as to whether the Suspect Target Management Plan “does avert people from a life of crime?”

He pressed the point: “Have you got actual evidence? Do you have peer-reviewed evidence by anybody as to STMP?”

Fuller had no answer.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2017 as "List shaft".

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