As debate over police accountability reaches boiling point, research finds ‘risk-based’ approaches to law enforcement, known for targeting racial minorities, are in use in Australia. By Santilla Chingaipe.
Law enforcement and racial profiling
Monash University researcher Leanne Weber spent two years researching how policing in the culturally diverse Greater Dandenong area in Melbourne’s south-east impacted young people’s sense of belonging.
Between 2016 and 2018, she gathered anecdotal evidence from 33 young people from South Sudanese and Pasifika backgrounds that showed direct discrimination by some police officers through individual reports of racial vilification. It also inadvertently revealed patterns of how young people from these backgrounds were being monitored by police.
“[There were] repeated reports of just being stopped for no apparent reason at all, to be asked who you are. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Who are your friends?’ ” says Weber.
Weber’s research found what she describes as a “risk-based approach” that was used to repeatedly monitor young people who’d already come into contact with law enforcement. “This seemed to be part of information gathering. A risk-based system is intelligence-led, it needs data and it seemed to me that this was a net-widening kind of thing, that police were using stops for information gathering rather than for enforced moral public order,” she says.
Weber’s report found “a predictive tool is used in the Dandenong area to classify young people who have been in conflict with the law into risk categories of ‘youth network offender’ or ‘core youth network offender’, which can lead to ongoing monitoring and surveillance”.
According to Weber, one young South Sudanese–Australian teenager claimed they were constantly monitored by police.
“I know what’s in the police station. I know what they do,” the teenager said. “They sit at the fucking computers and they watch everything we do in those areas, looking.”
In a statement, Victoria Police said information about police intelligence is not, for “operational reasons”, publicly available. A spokesperson did, however, acknowledge that the organisation “continues to consider, assess and trial new methodologies, including predictive systems, which may assist with optimising resource deployment and reducing crime”.
It’s been more than a decade since racial profiling by police came to national prominence when a group of young African–Australian men took Victoria Police to the Federal Court, alleging they were being targeted because of their race rather than their actions. It was the first race discrimination case heard by the court.
The cases ran from 2008 to 2013 with Victoria Police avoiding a trial over the claims, while pledging to implement a number of measures to tackle racial profiling.
Since then, though, many legal and human rights groups say little has changed.
In recent weeks, racial profiling and police brutality have come under renewed scrutiny in Australia in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer in the United States.
Looking to Australia’s own statistics, it is evident systemic racism in policing affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people most acutely.
In the first three months of 2020 alone, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia’s prisons rose by 5 per cent.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, the incarceration rate is now more than 10 times that of the general public.
Likewise, more than a third of adult women in prison are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“It has been heartbreaking that it takes the tragic death of an African American in America to bring attention to Black deaths in custody here, particularly given there have been over 430 of them since the 1991 [report from the] Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody,” says Nerita Waight, the co-chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.
One key recommendation, of the 330 made by that landmark royal commission, was for greater police accountability, which was echoed again more recently in the 2017 inquiry commissioned by former attorney-general George Brandis into the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
That inquiry, undertaken by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), called for police complaints handling mechanisms to be reviewed, “particularly addressing the perception by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that their complaints are not taken seriously, and that police misconduct is not addressed”.
But these calls haven’t moved beyond the pages of the ALRC’s report. More than two years after it was published, the government is yet to respond to its recommendations at all.
Nerita Waight says, simply, police should not be investigating police.
“Complaints about police should be investigated by a body totally independent of police services and that, where it’s decided by the independent body to hold a formal hearing of a complaint, that hearing should be public,” she says. “And that the complaints body’s reports should be annually submitted to parliament.”
Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville, in a statement to The Saturday Paper, said the state has “robust processes in place to ensure Victoria Police officers are held to account if they do the wrong thing”.
She said police “will be dealt with appropriately if their behaviour falls short”.
She said the government had strengthened the powers of the state’s police watchdog, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, to “ensure it has all the resources necessary to fulfil its statutory obligations”.
The Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre in Melbourne’s north-west represented the young African–Australian men who took Victoria Police to court more than a decade ago.
The centre’s executive officer, Anthony Kelly, says the recent debate around police accountability across the country has highlighted the need for more transparency in the way police collect and analyse data.
“For some years, we’ve been watching the expansion of police use of predictive technologies and programming to target policing on particular communities. It’s in part driven by racialised crime panic that Victoria experienced from 2016 to late 2018,” says Kelly, “but it’s also driven by the growth of predictive policing around the world.”
Predictive policing refers to the use of new technologies such as facial recognition, video surveillance systems and social media monitoring to collect and analyse data, which then predicts whether an individual is likely to commit a crime and in which locations predicted crimes may occur.
Leanne Weber, of Monash University, says these tools tend to amplify racial bias.
“Systemically, what has been shown to happen with risk-based systems in other parts of the world, and predictive systems in particular, is that they can actually have the effect of amplifying and hardwiring in any sort of disproportionate contact that may already exist,” she says.
New South Wales Police Force has long applied an “intelligence-led proactive policing policy” titled the Suspect Targeting Management Plan (STMP), a pre-emptive tool the force says is intended to reduce reoffending.
In January 2020, the state’s police watchdog, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), handed down a report detailing its findings following two years of investigations into how the STMP was specifically applied to minors.
It found young people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds were disproportionately selected for the STMP. Some of the children affected hadn’t previously been charged with any offences.
Nadine Miles, principal legal officer at the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, says children as young as nine were targeted by the STMP.
“It was in perpetuity, and it was used to overpolice and target the young people of our community at such a disproportionate level,” she says.
Miles says that while the police and the LECC couldn’t come to an agreement about the percentage of Aboriginal children targeted by the STMP, “it was an overwhelming proportion of Aboriginal kids”.
Miles argues the STMP was a clear example of racism.
“It supports the contention that the Aboriginal communities have been repeating for years, for decades, for centuries; that they are targeted, and they are mistreated, and they are mistreated and that the policing tactics used are inherently racist,” she says.
In response to questions from The Saturday Paper about whether the STMP system was still being used, NSW Police Force referred to the LECC’s report, adding that the document detailed “the state of STMP targeting under the old system and indicates the NSWPF plan for a new system which is being trialled”.
The organisation refused to comment further, as a trial of the STMP is ongoing.
As the debates about police accountability continue, many legal organisations are calling for tangible action. “There’s a lot of words and there’s a lot of fluff and there’s a lot of symbolism,” says Nadine Miles.
“There is not, in my mind, strong leadership to push down through the ranks to say, ‘We take the issues of Aboriginal communities seriously … we are willing and wanting to hear from community and work with community for the solutions that will see a turnaround in the stats.’ ”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 13, 2020 as "Target practice".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial