Community Wardens and other Forms of Self-Policing

858. South Australian Wardens. Several Aboriginal communities in the north-west of South Australia (including Amata, Ernabella, Fregon, Indulkana and Mimili) and Yalata in the west of the State have for some time used a system of Aboriginal wardens.[1391] Initially 20 persons were appointed and trained by the Police and the Department of Technical and Further Education for the Pitjantjatjara area and 10 for the Yalata community.[1392] A further 30 warders were appointed and trained in June 1985.[1393] The system is not established nor regulated by legislation. Wardens are employed and controlled by the Community Councils and carry out an internal security role. Other functions include liaison between the community and visiting police. (Emergencies apart, South Australian Police are able to visit communities only weekly.) The wardens have no official uniform but in some cases wear khaki trousers and shirt (similar to uniforms worn by South Australian police in the outback) and have made their own badges. Some communities have requested an improved status for their wardens, which they consider would come from giving them proper training, uniforms, badges and greater powers (of arrest etc.).[1394] It has been suggested that, at least if established by local initiative, such a status might free the warden from the kin relationships which, as discussed already, create real problems in many communities. Thus a warden in uniform and on duty might come to be regarded as exempt from kin obligations.[1395] The warden system, which was an Aboriginal initiative, has been operating with some success for several years. However the South Australian Police Force has decided to introduce a system of police aides to replace it.[1396] It has been proposed that the Aide Scheme operate for a trial period of three years in Port Augusta, Amata, Indulkana, Fregon and Ernabella. The aim of the scheme is to enable specially trained Aborigines, working within their own communities, to assist the police to provide a police service which is suitable to the community.[1397] The South Australian Customary Law Committee opposed this change, principally because of the practical’ difficulties in making such a system work, difficulties referred to in paras 855 and 856. The Committee preferred improvements to the existing warden system and mobile policing by the South Australian Police. In its view:

the South Australian approach, of mobile policing, does not raise the problems of an accommodation of a police culture to Aboriginal culture as might be posed by the establishment of residential arrangements.[1398]

859. Council-employed Peace Officers. Other Aboriginal communities have sought to employ a local peace officer, similar to the wardens in South Australia. The Gurindji Community Council (NT) has advocated the appointment of a member of their community, chosen and dismissable by the Council, as a local policeman. He should be a member of the Council, be given proper training and a uniform, and would have the power to arrest, and if necessary lock-up overnight, local residents who commit offences on Gurindji land. The value of training and in particular a uniform was mentioned as creating an environment whereby the nominated person would be considered exempt from kin obligations. Gurindji women considered there would be benefits in having an Aboriginal policewoman as well as a policeman.[1399] At Roper River (NT) the Council at various times has employed what are called security men to help police the community. These men, who have a uniform, are representative of the four different skin groups. There are also white police stationed at Roper River. The Lajamanu Council (Hooker Creek, NT) has also at times employed four ‘nightwatchmen’ as a supplement to the police. They are mainly older men who patrol the community each night. If offenders are found they are often dealt with summarily. The council and elders later decide if the police should be notified so that they may also pursue the matter. The development of the night patrol was a community initiative to reduce the very high level of disturbances and offending. It is apparently accepted by the members of the community.[1400] There is still support in some Aboriginal communities for night watchmen, especially among Aboriginal women.[1401]

860. Policing by Council Members. At Beswick Station (NT) the elected council performs a policing role. The Council relies on family leaders to help it. If trouble erupts a council member will request a member of the trouble-maker’s family to assist. Specific incidents or matters of continuing concern are raised at Council meetings and families requested to keep their members in order.[1402] The council is happy with the way this system operates and does not see any need for police aides. Other views expressed at the Commission’s Public Hearings supported this method of policing because it prevented people becoming resentful at a single person being given what were seen as arbitrary police powers.[1403]

861. The ‘Ten-Man Committee’. The involvement of the ‘Ten-Man Committee’ at the Strelley Community (WA) has already been described.[1404] Its role can extend to picking up offenders in Port Hedland and throughout the Pilbara, with the knowledge and support of the local police: those returned to Strelley by the committee are dealt with by the community at a public meeting. According to the local police the system works successfully.[1405] Apparently a similar committee operates at Noonkanbah (in the Kimberley area of Western Australia).

862. Self-Policing in Urban Areas. A system of self-policing first began operating unofficially among Aboriginal residents of Redfern in Sydney in April 1980. Two Aboriginal men were appointed as community liaison officers by the Aboriginal Housing Company to patrol the area and assist in local law and order. As a result of lack of funds the system lapsed after six months. It was reactivated in April 1983 as an ‘official’ system with funding provided. Initially two community liaison officers were appointed but this was later increased to four. Their principal function was to control behaviour involving vandalism and disruptive behaviour on Housing Company property. To this end they liaised regularly with the local police and with the Police Aborigine Liaison Unit, a special unit in the New South Wales Police Force. The four liaison officers were identifiable clothing and carried ID cards. They generally worked shifts between 7 am and 2 am. From time to time the Housing Company notified its tenants in the area of particular matters which the community liaison officers would be giving special attention: for example drinking in the streets, loud music, smashing bottles, dumping rubbish and card schools.[1406] Apparently the system worked well and there was a marked improvement in local law and order.[1407] The Housing Company has temporarily discontinued the scheme although efforts are being made to resurrect it.

863. Advantages and Disadvantages of Self-Policing. Self-policing has advantages both for communities and the State and Territory police forces. Communities are able to deal with trouble-makers in a more flexible manner which may be more appropriate to the circumstances, as well as more in accord with local customary laws. There may be as a result a de facto discretion to determine whether an apparent infringement of the criminal law should result in the police being called in and the matter pursued through the courts, or whether the matter can be dealt with locally. From the police viewpoint, self-policing can reduce the demands made upon them to service remote communities either with a permanent police presence or by regular visits. Police officers are understandably reluctant to live, with or without families, in remote localities. There may be no sufficient need for police in many smaller communities. Self-policing may reduce the overall demand on limited police resources, enabling a more efficient network of police services to be established. It may also, as the Redfern scheme demonstrated, be of value in urban areas. But of course it has its disadvantages, including the risk of unreliable provision of services, and the danger of partiality. Self-policing can also present real dilemmas, as the New South Wales Police pointed out.[1408] Some Aboriginal communities prefer to settle their own disputes and if police are called, their presence is resented. But, if the police are called and do not attend, there are likely to be complaints that the police are not doing their job or are discriminating against Aborigines.

864. A New South Wales Pilot Scheme. The New South Wales Police are presently attempting to create, as a pilot scheme, the position of Aboriginal Assistant to the Police. The aim of the scheme is to create better communications between the Aboriginal community and the Police. The person appointed as Aboriginal Assistant would not be carrying out a policing function, such as police aides do, and would not wear a uniform. Persons chosen would have to be acceptable to both the Aboriginal community and the Police.[1409]