844. The Range of Issues.The previous Chapter outlined a range of options for local justice mechanisms for Aboriginal communities. One of these options was to make the general legal system more aware of the needs of Aboriginal people, and to take account of Aboriginal customary laws by administrative means. A key issue in seeking to achieve this is the role of the police. Any detailed discussion of Aborigines and the police must involve a whole range of matters, many of them beyond the scope of this Report. In this Chapter the discussion covers the following matters:

  • policing of Aboriginal communities;

  • the need for better communication between Aborigines and the police;

  • the desirability of more Aborigines in police forces;

  • police aide systems;

  • self-policing;

  • the training and selection of police;

  • education for Aborigines; and

  • alternative strategies.[1346]

845. Role of the Police. A permanent, professional police force is an integral feature of each of the criminal justice systems operating in Australia. Given the over-representation of Aborigines within these systems the role of the police and the way in which they do their work are of critical importance. Aborigines are ‘disproportionately … involved in contact with police and therefore the potential of conflict is disproportionately higher’.[1347] The police are usually the most obvious participants in the criminal process, and may be viewed with resentment by the families and friends of Aborigines arrested and charged. Special problems arise for police when dealing with Aboriginal offenders, whether in small, remote communities or in the inner suburbs of capital cities. These problems are exacerbated by the range of public order offences which police enforce,[1348] and by the fact that much Aboriginal involvement with the criminal justice system is alcohol related.[1349] The frequent conflicts between Aborigines and the police are not conducive to good relations.[1350] Other factors responsible for the variable state of relations between Aborigines and the police include the socio-economic conditions in which many Aborigines live,[1351] the lack of specialized training and the (usually) short-term placement of police officers in Aboriginal communities, the multiplicity of functions which many police officers are required to perform,[1352] and unsympathetic attitudes towards police in some cases. For the most part, the police reflect the attitudes of the general public but because of their position in the community the police must be leaders in improving attitudes.

846. Different Policing Methods. The requirements for policing Aboriginal communities throughout Australia vary greatly between urban areas, country towns and remoter areas, and different approaches are adopted in each State and Territory. For example officers of the Queensland Police are now stationed or regularly visit all Aboriginal trust areas (formerly reserves), but there is also a separate Aboriginal police force, chosen from local residents and employed by the Department of Community Services, which performs certain policing functions.[1353] In Western Australia and the Northern Territory Aboriginal police aides with limited powers are employed by the Police Force in areas of high Aboriginal population. The South Australian Police have announced they will also establish a police aide scheme.[1354] In the north-west area of South Australia (Pitjantjatjara land) no police are based in any of the Aboriginal communities, but regular mobile patrols are carried out by the South Australian Police. In emergencies the police fly in. This may be contrasted with the Northern Territory where many Aboriginal communities have permanent police stations. Other communities largely police themselves, or are not of sufficient size to justify a police station; in those cases the State or Territory Police are only called in to deal with more serious matters or matters which cannot be dealt with locally. The range of approaches presently adopted must be kept in mind when considering the policing needs of Aborigines, and the many requests that have been made by Aboriginal communities for change.

847. Aboriginal Views. The Commission has not received any requests from Aboriginal communities for the removal of police stationed in their communities, nor has there been any denial of the need for police. On the contrary some communities in the Northern Territory which have no permanent police station have sought one, and many Aborigines would strongly resist any attempts to restrict their access to the police.[1355] What many Aborigines seek, especially those living in separate communities, whether in remote areas or on the fringes of country towns, is a greater degree of control over what takes place within the community. A central aspect of this is policing. Community leaders wish to be informed of police patrols entering the community, of police being called to disturbances and of persons being arrested.[1356] Some have requested that the police only enter after receiving local permission. The Report of the Groote Eylandt Aboriginal Task Force recommended that:

Prior to entering by the Police to an Aboriginal Community, the Community Council or one of its members, must be informed of the timing and purpose of the visit.[1357]

Such requirements must be balanced against the requirement that the police be able to carry out their work efficiently and impartially. Yet there does appear scope for better communication between police and local communities. Improved consultation with community leaders may have positive results. Small, especially remote, Aboriginal communities are not structured or run in the same way as a typical suburb of a city or country town. A number of different approaches could be taken to resolve this problem. One was suggested by Professor Kevin Ryan:

The ordinary police must not be restrained from responding to calls when breaches of the law are alleged, though it would be appropriate for them to refuse to intervene except when they are asked to do so by the Aboriginal Council or when the matter is so serious that it should not be left to the Council to handle.[1358]

It may be helpful for guidelines to be drafted, in consultation with the communities involved, instructing police of procedures to be adopted in such situations.

848. Need for Regular Communication. A crucial factor is regular communications between members of Aboriginal communities, and especially their leaders, and the police. This should occur whether police are locally based or not. Such communication may improve relations and assist both police and Aborigines to be kept informed on a continuing basis. In Canada, where many similar problems arise in policing Indian reserves, some police districts supply monthly and annual reports to local Indian Band Councils.[1359] This is one form of acknowledgment of the authority of Band Councils, and it may help to develop a better relationship of respect between the police and the Council. Another option that has been suggested is to adjust the emphasis of policing within communities to one of prevention, rather than enforcement and detection (though this is easier said than done). Changes in attitudes of police to Aboriginal policing are also needed: this may require new curricula, especially at later stages of police training.[1360]