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Closing the Gap targets would lead to “competing duties": NSW Police Commissioner

Dechlan Brennan -

A new report from the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) has highlighted the need for the NSW police to do more to reduce the large overrepresentation of First Nations people in the justice system.

It comes as NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb told the review that making NSW police officers responsible for addressing Closing the Gap targets would lead to "competing duties".

The report, tabled in NSW Parliament on Monday, recommends the NSW Police Force publish a Closing the Gap delivery plan and recognises the valuable role Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers and Indigenous staff play in improving the cultural awareness within the police force.

It also highlights a significant number of instances where First Nations people are over-represented in statistics where police discretion is utilised.

Between 2019 and 2022, Indigenous people were 20.4 per cent more likely to be refused bail, even "after accounting for other relevant case characteristics".

Aboriginal people made up 46 per cent of all adults subject to warnings under consorting laws despite making up less than 3.5 per cent of the NSW population.

The LECC report was seemingly perplexed at the contradictions between the NSW Police's public image and private rhetoric around Closing the Gap.

"In response to a draft version of this report, the NSW Police Force told the Commission that the NSW Police Force is not responsible for the complex social, economic and intergenerational factors that have led to over-representation in the criminal justice system," the report stated.

It noted the Commissioner's views "may explain the contrast" between the goals the NSW Police has stated publicly about improving their relationship with the state's First Nations' people and "the evidence of Aboriginal over-representation in NSW Police Force policing interactions".

"(The NSW Police) appears to see traditional policing work as separate from the need to collaborate with Aboriginal organisations on community-driven solutions to addressing the chronic social disadvantage that drives much offending," it said.

The report included a number of recommendations aimed at increasing police responsibility for meeting Closing the Gap targets.

A human-rights lawyer speaking to National Indigenous Times anonymously said it was an "outrageous statement" to suggest Closing the Gap competed with police duties.

"What is the objective that it competes with?" they said.

"One of the main recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was for police to stop criminalising people."

Senior Solicitor at Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) Samantha Lee says stats RLC have collected from NSW Police show Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by "strip searches, general stop and searches and even COVID fines".

"The NSW Police have a huge role to play in Closing the Gap when it comes to incarceration or the over-policing of First Nations people," she told National Indigenous Times.

The report also confirmed Aboriginal people continue to be significantly over-represented in the application of the Suspect Targeting Management Plan (STMP).

Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) has called for reform on the "harmful" STMP programme, including stopping its use on children and youths.

PIAC argue once a person is placed on the STMP, they are targeted for "pro-active attention". This increased attention from police and created risks of oppression and harassment.

PIAC CEO Jonathon Hunyor said over 70 per cent of young people subject to the STMP identified as Aboriginal, a statistic he described as "unacceptable".

"Aboriginal communities continue to be targeted by unfair and discriminatory over-policing. The LECC raised concerns about the over-representation of Aboriginal young people on STMP target lists in 2020, but the numbers have been getting worse," he said.

"We know from years of experience that increasing interactions with police is harmful for young people. It increases the likelihood that they are criminalised and sets the course for on-going interactions with the justice system."

In response to questions from National Indigenous Times, a NSW police spokesperson said the NSW Police "acknowledge the LECC report into the 2018 NSWPF Aboriginal Strategic Direction (ASD)".

"This ASD was written over 5 years ago and was, at the time, fit for purpose to the operating environment available to the NSWPF at the time. As such, a number of now fundamental arrangements did not exist, including the National Closing the Gap Priority Reforms released in 2020," the spokesperson said.

They stated the recently released ASD continued to help build strong relationships with local Indigenous communities in the state. They further noted the new ASD addresses many of the concerns raised by the LECC report.

They did not respond to questions around Commissioner Webb or if her views represented those of the NSW Police Force.

In 2020, the LECC reported 42 per cent of young people on STMP were Indigenous; they recommended the NSW Police reduce this over-representation.

By 2022 the number of Aboriginal people on STMP was 54.7 per cent; 71.8 per cent of young people identified as Indigenous.

Mr Hunyor said the LECC report calls out a core principle of the Closing the Gap Framework, the lack of Indigenous involvement with decision making.

"Over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system will not improve unless Aboriginal peak organisations and communities are included in decision-making and design of policies that impact them. NSW Police need to step up and be part of the solution," he said.

The report was also heavily critical of the NSW Police and their consistent refusal to allow the LECC access to interview rooms when officers were being questioned after critical incidents.

In the 12 months up to June 2023, the LECC monitored 131 critical incidents. A critical incident is a police operation that results in a death or serious injury.

"In every critical incident investigation to date, involved police officers have refused to consent to the commission investigator being present or to remotely observe their interviews," the report read.

"This appears to be a consistent and state-wide position taken by police officers involved in critical incidents. The power to observe interviews of involved officers in critical incident investigations … appears to be an illusory power."

LECC Chief Commissioner Peter Johnson SC highlighted the role of police in improving criminal justice outcomes for First Nations communities.

"We know that the New South Wales Police Force's role is to enforce the law," he said.

"At the same time, police should be doing everything possible to ensure their actions are consistent with the New South Wales Government's Closing the Gap priorities and targets."

The NSW Police have been heavily criticised for several incidents in recent months.

The internal police data, obtained by the Redfern Legal Centre via state freedom of information laws, revealed NSW police used force on 28,826 occasions from 2018-19 to 2021-22.

Disproportionately, 45 per cent of these events were against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In May, constable Ryan Barlow was found guilty of assaulting a 16-year-old Indigenous boy during an arrest in 2020. Video showing Barlow throwing the boy to the ground in unofficial police move known as the "leg sweep manoeuvre" contradicted his evidence after the incident.


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