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Policing as part of the national psyche

By Osman Faruqi

There are two striking aspects of Australia's response to coronavirus: the first is that it's being increasingly led as a police issue, and the second is that this is happening while the rest of the world works to reform and curtail police powers. As other democracies talk about abolition, we're sending armed officers into housing blocks and calling it public health.

In the two months since George Floyd’s killing by police, 31 of America’s largest cities have implemented policies restricting chokeholds. Cities such as Los Angeles and New York have cut their police budgets for the first time in modern history. Minneapolis has voted to defund its police force.

New Zealand recently announced it was abandoning a trial of arming officers. In Canada, the mayor of Toronto has tabled a proposal to “de-task” the city’s police force by creating “alternative models of community safety response”.

In Australia, rather than sparking any kind of real debate about the limits of policing, the conversation has focused on a conspiracy theory that Black Lives Matter rallies spread coronavirus.

Despite being dismissed by medical experts, this theory has dominated headlines in the country's most popular newspapers and has even been endorsed by the New South Wales police commissioner.

Police have also prevented further rallies from going ahead, claiming they will be a vector for proliferation of the virus. The fact that the police may have their own interests in shutting down a campaign squarely focused on police violence has barely featured in the public discussion.

Meanwhile, a proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility and stop the imprisonment of those aged under 14, 60 per cent of whom are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, was recently rejected by the country's attorneys-general.

In Victoria, far from de-arming, defunding or de-tasking police, the Andrews government has expanded its punitive approach to public health, increasing fines for those who breach public health orders and giving police the power to enter homes without a warrant. Protective services officers – armed officials with just three months of training, who normally patrol train stations – have been given the same powers as police to stop, question and fine individuals.

In comparable jurisdictions, people have been able to respond to the virus while debating and implementing police reform. Australia has done the opposite. The pandemic has been used as justification for an unprecedented increase in police powers.

This phenomenon reflects a bigger trend in Australia: the success of what criminologists dub penal populism. Coined in the mid-1990s, the term refers to the way in which politics can harness and exacerbate community concern about crime to push through laws such as mandatory sentencing and give police more resources and more powers. This form of politics creates a problem and then pretends to solve it, usually with brute force. It is popular with the police and with tabloids, and it works.

Australia isn't the only country grappling with the consequences of penal populism, but our inability to have a real conversation about its legacy reflects something much deeper in our culture. As far-reaching as many of the current police powers are, particularly those introduced in the context of coronavirus, they aren't entirely unprecedented.

Policing in this country was first introduced as a tool of colonial repression, to target and vanquish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Militarised, armed and mounted police units existed in Australia before anywhere else in the world.

Before centrally funded and organised police forces were established in Britain or the US, Australian police were enforcing colonial rule and fighting in the Frontier Wars. As the colony expanded, police were used to implement policies of protectionism and assimilation, aimed at further subjugating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Essentially, police in Australia have played a long-term paramilitary and administrative role not seen in most other countries. The legacy of that approach dominates our current thinking on policing and justice. Like police reform elsewhere, until we are able to acknowledge the root cause of inequality and injustice in Australia, we will not be able to properly reckon with this issue. Truly, this is a nation of cops.

Abridged from The Saturday Paper #313.

Osman Faruqi is a journalist and the editor of 7am, Schwartz Media's daily news podcast.

Published in Chain Reaction #139, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, May 2021.


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