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NT Aboriginal Justice Agency criticises move to allow private security to carry pepper spray

Dechlan Brennan -

The decision by the Northern Territory government to allow private security guards to use pepper spray at bottle shops has been criticised by a leading NT legal group, who argue they are alarmed at the move and the lack of effective oversights in place for private organisations.

On Monday, the NT government announced the next step in its "common sense and comprehensive plan" to help reduce crime, opening applications for private security guards at bottle shops to use OC spray, commonly known as pepper spray.

Available to private security personnel who have completed the mandatory training - and who are approved by the Commissioner - guards will be allowed to carry, possess, and use the spray while on duty across the NT.

The Territory government said the roll-out of OC Spray to private security guards follows "extensive consultation with the industry and its use and effectiveness will be monitored closely by authorities such as the Northern Territory Police Force".

However, the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) has criticised the announcement, and said they were "alarmed" by the commencement of the legislation.

"OC spray is a serious weapon, subject to stringent controls under the Weapons Control Act," a NAAJA spokesperson told National Indigenous Times.

A review of the Territory's Liquor Act last year called for harsher penalties for those refusing to leave a venue or bottle shop, and the government has announced they want to increase fines from $187 to $880 when parliament sits in May.

However, despite hospitality groups applauding the decision, the use of OC spray by private contractors was not recommended in the review.

The use of Police Auxiliary Licensing Inspectors (PALIs) has been encouraged by Indigenous groups, including the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (Congress), who argue they play an "essential role in reducing alcohol related harm in Alice Springs."

However, PALIs are government employees and therefore subject to stringent oversight.

"Private security providers are not subject to the same accountability mechanisms as members of the Police Force," the NAAJA spokesperson said.

"Putting this weapon in the hands of private security was not a recommendation out of the Liquor Act review."

Police Minister Brent Potter said the NT government is working on "common sense measures to improve community safety" and has developed a system where private security guards can apply to carry OC Spray "to protect workers and shoppers".

Last year, a report by the ABC highlighted claims made by Aboriginal and homeless people on the streets of Darwin and Palmerston who felt they'd been singled out by private patrols who receive millions of dollars in funding from the NT government.

A report into Indigenous homelessness and contact with the justice system in 2021 said evidence from community lawyers showed racism was evident in the operations by private security guards in Darwin.

Private security is regulated by an agency inside the tourism department, called Licensing NT, with the ABC reporting last year that despite officially being able to process complaints and refer them to the police, they hadn't referred any in five years.

"There are major unanswered questions around adequate training, the impact of use on individuals who may have medical conditions for which exposure to OC spray could be harmful, accountability, and the potential targeting of Aboriginal people,' NAAJA said.

"Arming security guards with OC spray will not enhance community safety and is instead a disaster waiting to happen."

Professor of Law at the University of Sydney, Thalia Anthony, said in The Conversation last year that there remained a "lack of legislation controlling what powers and authority private security guards actually have" in the NT.

"There is also a lack of legislation regulating their conduct and responsible use of force and weapons," Dr Anthony said.

During the announcement on Monday, NT hospitality chief executive Alex Bruce told reporters: "Personally, I would like to see some mongrels cop it in the eye with some of this spray."

In the background, Mr Potter can be seen nodding along to Mr Bruce's statement.

Asked about why he was nodding to the statement, the Minister didn't directly address the question, telling National Indigenous Times: "Today's announcement was about the rollout of OC spray in hospitality venues."

"OC Spray will only be used as a last resort tool by security guards to add an extra layer of protection for bottle shop workers and customers. Before being able to equip the extra community safety tool all security guards must complete extensive nationally recognised training to ensure proper and responsible use."

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