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Opinion:

Different tack: Australian conference reveals innovative approaches to familiar policing issues

OPEN s.a.watts2nd September 2019Dr Steve Watts - Director, CoPaCC

CoPaCC Director Dr Steve Watts attends the National Policing Summit in Melbourne, Australia on behalf of Policing Insight and discovers that while good policing is the same the world over in protecting communities, Australia is taking an innovative approach to some familiar issues.

Between 27 and 28 August 2019, on behalf of Policing Insight, I attended the National Policing Summit Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.  The event was organised by Informa, a well established actor in the public sector conferencing field in Australia.  In July, I also attended the ANZPAA (Australia & New Zealand Police Advisory Agency) conference that was reported upon previously in Policing Insight.

Whilst adapting to local contexts, good policing is about protecting people and communities. The drive to do this in an effective, ethical and accountable manner is as strong here as anywhere.

Both events were extremely interesting for me, having been involved for all of my adult life in policing, but they were also important in terms of my role in trying to establish Policing Insight and the World Class Policing Awards in the region within the policing and related academic communities.

It is essential for me to understand the issues and challenges facing policing in this region in order to assess the potential utility for Policing Insight and its ability to act as a sounding board for policing more globally.

It is always nice when one’s assumptions are confirmed, and indeed these conferences and the people engaged in policing that I have spoken to here have reinforced my conviction that policing is the same the world over. Whilst adapting to local contexts, good policing is about protecting people and communities. The drive to do this in an effective, ethical and accountable manner is as strong here as anywhere.  It is clear, therefore that Policing Insight has a role to play in sharing and promoting debate and best practice more widely.  We can learn much from each other.

Social media strategy

This summit was distinguished from the previous ANZPAA conference in that it was in some ways more discursive of a range of ‘policing’ issues rather than a more ‘police’ strategic and operational delivery focus which was understandably the case in the ANZPAA conference. This event addressed the range of issues that would be readily recognised as issues in policing across the world, in terms of strategic threats and risks in particular discussions upon; cyber, mental health and trust/ confidence issues. I will mention here just a couple of the debates that I found particularly interesting and add to the wider debate in policing.

Their spoof video based upon a clip from the movie ‘Love Actually’ which addressed significant threats in a very engaging way has become a classic and is worth watching as an excellent example of their strategy

Tony Alderman, Australian Federal Police media lead spoke about the AFP’s innovative approach to community engagement and trust through the use of social media.  Whilst most police organisations have a social media presence that they use with varying levels of success, Tony described how his strategic approach to communication with communities through social media has delivered measurable increases in message penetration. 

In particular, his team use appropriate humour to get across sometimes difficult messages. Their spoof video based upon a clip from the movie ‘Love Actually’ which addressed significant threats in a very engaging way has become a classic and is worth watching as an excellent example of their strategy. I have asked Tony to share his experience in an article in Policing Insight soon.

Another good example of the need for us to widen the debate around policing issues was provided in a panel session that included Dr John Coyne of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Dr Caitlin Hughes of the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, and Dr Alex Wodak AM of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.

Drug findings

Strong evidence was presented that drug seizure rates by police and other agencies and arrest rates of users and dealers has no effect at all upon the availability of and class of drugs available in communities.  A key measure of this is provided by the ongoing monitoring and analysis of wastewater in areas across Australia.  This project run by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commissions supported by universities across Australia has been in place for over 17 years and it provides an analysis of the wastewater produced by 54% of the population.

The findings report the levels of illicit drugs in the wastewater and provide the facility to map trends and changes that provide a reliable indication of illicit drug use in the 50 sample locations and by association across Australia. Whilst there have been ‘snap-shot’ studies of wastewater drug levels in Europe that have included the UK, I am not aware of such on going monitoring on the Australian model in the UK. This analytical product is crucial in informing Australian drug policy, and is clearly worthy of consideration elsewhere.

The panel were strongly of the view that the police enforcement role in illicit drug control was not only ineffective, but on occasion could be counter productive, sometimes with tragic unintended results.

Given that data and a range of additional quantitative and qualitative studies, the panel were strongly of the view that the police enforcement role in illicit drug control was not only ineffective, but on occasion could be counter productive, sometimes with tragic unintended results.  One disturbing case was discussed involving a young girl who on her way to a festival, knowing that police were searching people entering the ground, took all of the drugs in her possession and died as a result.

The recommendations made were around the redefining of illicit drug use from a criminal problem to a health and social problem, with a range of measures put in place from enhanced treatment facilities to drug testing, particularly at festivals and re aligning the role of police from enforcement to supporting other agencies in keeping people safe. Clearly this is a profound debate that has global resonance, and that certainly raged in UK policing for the whole of my career and beyond. Australia has some important insights to contribute.


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