Aborigines in the Police Force

849. ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. One way that is often suggested to improve the policing of Aboriginal communities — and to improve the overall state of Aboriginal/police relations — is to increase the number of Aborigines in State and Territory police forces. One among a number of obstacles is the attitude that has developed of ‘them’ and ‘us’. The involvement of Aborigines may, perhaps, change the view held by many Aborigines that the police discriminate against them. The rationale behind encouraging members of minority groups to join police forces has been expressed in the following terms with reference to United States Indians:

First, it increases the likelihood that Indians will have a sense of linkage with the police department; they will feel that their views are represented. ‘We just like to know that Indians are there — I’ve got a cousin there — that helps’, is the way that one Indian person expressed it. Second, it is believed that an Indian policeman will have better understanding of other Indians because of their common background, and that, in turn, he or she will gain more respect and cooperation. Third, Indian officers can educate White officers so that they will become more adept in their dealings with Indians.[1361]

On the other hand it has been argued that this has little substance, and that once a person from a minority group in a heterogeneous setting becomes a policeman he or she is seen essentially as an agent of the majority group.[1362] An Aborigine deciding to join the police force runs the risk of being labelled an ‘Uncle Tom’. Moreover the appointment whether through special recruitment procedures or otherwise — of a few minority group members at junior levels may have little or no impact on attitudes within the force or on policy. It may be, and be seen as, a form of tokenism.[1363]

850. Recruitment of Aborigines. At present the number of Aborigines in State and Territory Police Forces is very low.[1364] Until very recently no State Police Force nor the Australian Federal Police had adopted special procedures to recruit Aborigines. The South Australian Police Force has stated that it encourages Aborigines and persons of other ethnic backgrounds to join the Police Force, but has no special provision for entry.[1365] The cadet scheme in the Northern Territory does however make particular attempts to recruit Aborigines. The aim of this scheme is to .provide sufficient training for Aborigines to enable them to graduate on equal terms with other recruits. When the scheme commenced in 1980 only four suitably qualified Aborigines applied, only two remained after six months (one left because he would not live away from his country)[1366] and none proceeded to graduation. Despite the special scheme, the Northern Territory Police find that it cannot compete for educated Aborigines against other prospective employers. A factor in this is the reluctance to join because of the fear of losing friends. The New South Wales Police has an Equal Employment Management Plan which provides for a target of 8 Aborigines, including two females, in a 12 month period. There are no special standards of entry. In the latter half of 1985, four Aborigines were recruited into the force.[1367]

851. Recruitment Policy. While the attitude of Police Forces to the maintenance of entry standards is understandable, unless some greater flexibility is introduced no changes are likely to occur in the numbers of Aboriginal recruits. This is the United States experience:

Recruitment of minorities into police forces in the United States has indicated that the process requires innovations in selection and training procedures. The American experience suggests that a recruitment campaign to increase the proportion of Aborigines on police forces should utilize redefined or modified selection criteria.[1368]

One suggestion is that while filling regular officer positions should be the principal objective, an intermediate step might be the recruitment of community officers who could proceed via training to become regular police officers.[1369]

852. Aboriginal Police Aides. As a step towards greater Aboriginal participation within the police forces some States have introduced a system of Aboriginal police aides. These operate in varying forms in Western Australia, and the Northern Territory and are shortly to be introduced in South Australia. Queensland has its own system of Aboriginal Police which are not part of the Queensland Police Force.[1370] Other State Police Forces are not in favour of establishing police aides.

  • Western Australia. Section 38A of the Police Act 1892 (WA) enables the Commissioner of Police to ‘appoint aboriginal persons to be aboriginal aides’. An ‘aboriginal aide’ may be given the same powers, privileges, duties and obligations as any other constable (although this has not yet happened). Police aides are. town-based rather than community-based, and are generally situated in remote areas. The aides operate in conjunction with and under the supervision of the regular police. As well as on the job training, they attend special annual training courses. The powers of a member of the police force (including an ‘aboriginal aide’ pursuant to s 38A(3)) in relation to certain Aboriginal communities are increased by s 7(2) of the Aboriginal Communities Act 1979 (WA), which enables a community council to make by-laws giving special powers to a member of the police force.[1371] There is a promotion hierarchy, but there is no scope for an aide to become, in time, a regular member of the force. Despite this, the scheme has had relatively good retention rates.[1372] Police perceptions of the success of the Western Australian aide scheme are by no means shared by others,[1373] and there has been considerable resentment at the way aides have been deployed at times of high Aboriginal-police tension. There is concern that the aides become alienated from their own communities and do not carry out the liaison role envisaged for them.

  • Northern Territory. Section 19 of the Police Administration Act 1978 (NT), which provides for the appointment of police aides, is in similar terms to s 38A of the Police Act 1892 (WA). The section provides that the Commissioner may ‘appoint persons to be aides’. An aide so appointed has all the powers, privileges, duties and obligations of a constable, subject to any terms and conditions specified in the instrument of his appointment. The first police aides were recruited for coastal surveillance. The scheme was later extended to inland centres and the powers and responsibilities of aides increased. They are given special training over an 8 week period to explain their powers and common problems likely to confront them.[1374] In practice, police aides in the Northern Territory have limited powers of arrest of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal persons. However, the present practice is that a police aide with arrest powers does not work on his own. The authority of aides is extended with experience, but the main limitation on their powers stems from the fact that many cannot read or write.[1375] Retention rates are not particularly high.

  • Queensland. Aboriginal police, now appointed pursuant to the Community Services (Aborigines) Act 1984 s 39, operate on each of the 14 Aboriginal reserves (trust areas) in Queensland. They have limited policing powers, restricted to a range of minor offences.[1376] No special training course exists for the Aboriginal police but they receive some on the job. training from officers of the Queensland Police stationed on the reserve. Most wear a uniform which makes them readily identifiable. In contrast with the police aides in Western Australia and the Northern Territory the Queensland Aboriginal police are not part of the Queensland Police Force. They are appointed by the local Aboriginal Council and paid by the Department of Community Services, though they are expected to work under the direction of the Queensland Police.

853. Arguments for Aboriginal Police Aides. It has been suggested that an Aboriginal police aide system may be a means of improving Aboriginal-police relations, as well as a means of improving police methods as they affect Aborigines. An Aborigine carrying out policing responsibilities within the Aboriginal community in which he lives is — it is argued — more likely to understand the pressures, problems and underlying tensions. He is on the spot if trouble occurs, knows the histories of the people involved and hence is better able to determine an appropriate action. A police officer without that knowledge could unwittingly create further problems. A further argument is that an arrest of one Aborigine by another Aborigine may cause less resentment, and perhaps less loss of dignity, than if a white police officer was involved. The Commission received a number of submissions supporting the concept of Aboriginal police or police aides.[1377] The Mossman Gorge Aboriginal community in North Queensland submitted that they needed Aboriginal police or police aides to help the police protect law abiding families from lawless and drunken members of the community. It was thought that the appointment of police aides could help to calm fears about unfair treatment by the police, and help the police to gain more insight and understanding of problems at Mossman Gorge. At the Commission’s Public Hearings held during March-May 1981, there was strong support in many communities for Aboriginal police. Views to this effect were expressed at Davenport reserve (Port Augusta, SA), Yandearra (WA), La Grange (WA), Derby (WA), One Arm Point (WA), Junjawa (Fitzroy Crossing, WA), Numbulwar (NT), Amata (SA) and Moree (NSW). In Queensland, communities visited which had Aboriginal police generally favoured their retention, although shortcomings with the Queensland system were mentioned, especially relating to the limited status and powers of the aides. Almost without exception communities which supported a system of Aboriginal police considered that an Aboriginal policeman should have the same status as a white policeman (including uniforms, badges and arrest powers), and should be able to work side by side with him rather than as a subordinate. An organised training program for Aboriginal police was considered essential.[1378] A submission from the Queensland Law Society[1379] asserted that proper training and remuneration for Aboriginal police officers could improve the high turnover rate on Queensland reserves, which, it was said, had led to abuses of power. The recent Groote Eylandt Aboriginal Task Force Report commented:

The Task Force is firmly of the view that the introduction of a community located Aboriginal Police Aide system is a positive way to improve Aboriginal-Police relations as well as improving Police activities as they affect Aboriginals. The Task Force believes that Aboriginal Police Aides performing Police duties within an Aboriginal Community are more likely to understand the pressures, problems and underlying tensions of that community.[1380]

The Task Force went on to recommend two police aides be appointed to Umbakumba and four to Angurugu, the two Aboriginal communities on Groote Eylandt. But police aide schemes, especially where there is no avenue for promotion to the regular forces, tend to produce a group of ‘second class police officers’, with limited responsibility for local policing but with no opportunity to influence the policing of Aboriginal communities in any more fundamental way.[1381]

854. Promotion for Aboriginal Police Aides. A major shortcoming with existing police aide schemes is that there is no facility for progression to police constable. Experience and on-the-job training cannot overcome the educational bar which prevents most Aborigines from being eligible to join police forces.[1382] One option would be to consider expanding the entry requirements for the police forces so that, for example, working as a police aide for a period of time could provide an alternative method of entry. But sufficient standards of education and literacy are essential for police work, so that remedial education programs are likely to be necessary to assist police aides in meeting the standards required.[1383]

855. Aboriginal Police and Kinship. A particular problem which arises for Aboriginal police and police aides, especially those working among more traditional Aborigines, relates to the kinship system and the avoidance relationships which form part of it. An Aboriginal policeman expected to arrest a relative can become caught between two worlds, making it difficult or impossible to fulfil both his tribal obligation and his role as a police officer.[1384] Resistance to local pressures could lower his status as member of the group and make him a target of hostility or resentment because of his powers as a police aide. The creation of Aboriginal police aides may conversely introduce a new authority within a community and unwittingly have the effect of eroding Aboriginal traditions and law.[1385] In some communities inter-clan hostilities can arise when an Aboriginal policeman from one clan has to arrest a member of another clan.[1386] On some Aboriginal reserves in Queensland this problem has been overcome to some extent by appointing an Aboriginal policeman from each of the clans or tribal groupings.[1387] During the Commission’s Public Hearings problems for Aboriginal policemen resulting from kinship obligations were mentioned in several communities including Bardi (One Arm Point, WA), Bayulu (Fitzroy Crossing, WA), Yuendumu (NT), Doomadgee (Qld), Aurukun (Qld) and Palm Island (Qld). In some places it was regarded as a bar to the successful operation of an Aboriginal police force. One possibility is for Aboriginal policemen to be posted to areas other than their tribal area[1388] in order to avoid kinship obligations. But affinity to one’s own home land is a major obstacle with such proposals. Lacking knowledge of the local language and in danger of being ostracised, the task of an Aboriginal police aide in such cases may be difficult or impossible. It would also run counter to an often expressed rationale for police aide schemes, that they provide local knowledge and understanding of underlying tensions within communities, and allow for policing to be carried on with a greater level of local acceptance.

856. Aboriginal Police Exercising Arrest Powers. Related to the difficulties for Aboriginal police or police aides with kinship is that of arresting a person where some form of physical contact is required. This problem was specifically noted in. a recent report of the South Australian Aboriginal Customary Law Committee:

there is locked deep in the Pitjantjatjara system of values an unthinkableness about aggressively seizing another person. Each individual is autonomous, aristocractic and inviolate. For one adult to denigrate, publicly challenge, or to lay hold of another either directly or through kinsman, therefore constitutes an offence. Serious consequences will almost inevitably follow; and if people are drunk, these can be widespread and catastrophic.[1389]

Clearly this makes it very difficult for some Aborigines to carry out an autonomous policing function.

857. The Need for Local Support. Some of the problems confronting Aboriginal police may be overcome if they receive the support of the local elders or community council. If the local authority structure is ignored and the Aboriginal policeman is solely responsible to the Police Commissioner (or, as in Queensland, a Government Department) the Aboriginal aide may be regarded merely as an addition — often, a ‘second class’ addition — to the ordinary police system. Community support is thus essential.[1390] Without clear and reliable local support, and without a clear perception, on the part both of the local Aboriginal community and of the police, of the role police aides should play, no system of Aboriginal police or police aides should be introduced. Another problem is that they may well cut across existing policing methods developed to suit particular needs. These include ‘community wardens’ and other forms of self-policing.