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NSW Police must be held accountable on Closing The Gap - Aboriginal Legal Service

Giovanni Torre -

NSW Police must share responsibility for Closing the Gap, says the Aboriginal Legal Service in response to a new report examining how police work with Aboriginal communities.

On Wednesday the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) raised their concerns that the organisation was not consulted on the new blueprint for police engagement with Aboriginal communities before its launch in August this year, despite the NSW government's commitment to align the plan with the National Agreement on Closing the Gap in partnership with Aboriginal communities and organisations.

The ALS noted that Law Enforcement Conduct Commission's report into the impact of the previous Aboriginal Strategic Direction (2018-2023) found that NSW Police accountabilities for Closing the Gap are "currently unclear" and recommended that the NSW Government list the NSW Police Force as a responsible agency.

ALS chief executive Karly Warner said Closing the Gap "is everybody's responsibility, and achieving these targets will benefit all of us".

"By launching a new police-community engagement strategy without consulting us, and while refusing to engage with the LECC's review into the previous strategy's impact, NSW Police have demonstrated a lack of commitment to working in meaningful partnership to reduce Aboriginal over-incarceration. This is reinforced by the Police Commissioner's troubling comments that police are not responsible for Closing the Gap," she said.

ALS noted that the over-incarceration of Aboriginal adults and children "is at crisis point".

In February 2023, Aboriginal people made up 29.7 per cent of the adult prison population in NSW, which is the highest proportion on record. Latest figures from June 2023 show Aboriginal young people represent 58.9 per cent of the juvenile detention population in NSW, also trending upward. This is despite Closing the Gap targets to reduce the incarceration rate of Aboriginal adults by at least 15 per cent, and of Aboriginal children by at least 30 per cent.

Ms Warner noted that the evidence shows discretionary action by police is "overwhelmingly responsible" for putting more Aboriginal people behind bars.

"Police disproportionately subject our communities to punitive practices like strip searches and bail checks, and disproportionately charge us rather than opting for diversion processes. There has been a sharp upward trend in police refusing bail to Aboriginal adults – the increase in bail refusals by police has been double the increase in bail refusals by courts*. What is responsible for this mismatch if not police discrimination?" she said.

Data from the state's Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research released in June showed Aboriginal people are almost four times more likely to be charged for cannabis possession compared to non-Indigenous people found with cannabis. Between January 2017 and February 2020, 38,813 cases involving 27,127 adult offenders saw NSW Police choose to caution just 11.7 per cent of Indigenous adults, rather than charge them, compared to 43.9 per cent for non-Indigenous people.

The Aboriginal Legal Service of NSW/ACT said it welcomed the LECC's work on the review of the Aboriginal Strategic Direction.

"Robust and independent police oversight and accountability is critical to a functioning system, and an important pathway towards repairing community–police relationships and improving outcomes for Aboriginal people," the ALS said in a statement.

NSW Minister for Police and Counter-terrorism Yasmin Catley told National Indigenous Times she acknowledged the report "and the criticisms it presented", which she will consider.

"The report looks back at the last five years and identifies some areas of improvement for the NSW Police and in particular, how they engage with Aboriginal communities and internal training," she said.

"In August this year, a new Aboriginal Strategic Direction was implemented by the NSW Police. I'm pleased the new strategy addresses many of the issues raised by the LECC. The NSW Police is taking genuine and proactive steps to ensure employees are culturally competent and responsible.

"The new Aboriginal Strategic Direction includes a series of mandatory training for all sworn and unsworn employees across the NSW Police. Police recruits also undergo mandatory training, so from day one on the job every Probationary Constable has undergone Working with Aboriginal Communities Training."

The Minister said NSW Police have made "a conscious effort to collate and share engagements with Aboriginal communities across their Police Districts and Commands".

"Community engagement is essential in developing strong relationships and the ability for police to work collaboratively with communities," she said.

Ms Catley said it was important to note the report was not critical of the work of Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers, "who do fantastic work".

"The new Aboriginal Strategic Direction closely aligns with the Closing the Gap targets agreed on by all states and territories in 2020 and is consistent with the National Agreement on Closing the Gap 2021-2031," she said.

"This government, and the NSW Police, is committed to developing a strong, positive relationship with Aboriginal people and communities across the State."


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