Other Policing Problems

868. Aboriginal/Police Relations. The Commission has received a number of submissions giving examples of poor relations with the police. These range from misunderstandings due to the lack of police understanding of Aboriginal society through to the abuse of police power and authority. They come from both city and country areas. The House of Representatives Committee Report into Aboriginal Legal Aid found:

There is evidence, however, that harassment, discrimination, maltreatment and abuse of legal rights by police are still widespread and that in many areas Aboriginal/police relations are characterised by distrust and tension, if not open conflict and hostility.[1416]

While there are recurring conflicts between Aborigines and police, attempts at improving Aboriginal/police relations are being made in some States.

869. Regular Meetings between Aborigines and Police. In at least four States regular liaison schemes of some kind exist:

  • South Australia. In South Australia, an Aboriginal/Police Liaison Committee, initiated in 1972 and including representatives of Aboriginal organisations,[1417] the South Australian Police and Commonwealth and State Government Departments, meets monthly, alternating between police headquarters and the Aboriginal Community Centre in Adelaide, to discuss matters of concern between Aboriginal organisations and the police.[1418] On a regional basis the ‘Central Yorke Peninsula Liaison Committee’ which operates in an area with a high Aboriginal population has apparently been successful in improving police/community relations. There is Aboriginal representation on the Committee, which does not deal only with Aboriginal-related problems but with general community concerns.[1419] In addition to these Committees, certain officers in the South Australian Police Force have specific responsibility in the area of Aboriginal/police relations. The Officer-in-Charge of the Community Affairs and Crime Prevention holds the position of Police/Aboriginal Liaison Officer and represents the Commissioner in police/Aboriginal affairs throughout the State. A senior sergeant occupies the position of Police/Aboriginal Field Liaison Officer, and 13 District Liaison Officers have similar responsibility within each police district.

  • Western Australia. In Western Australia a Special Cabinet Committee on Aboriginal/Police Relations was established in 1976, following the Skull Creek incident, the subject of the 1975/6 Laverton Royal Commission.[1420] The Committee includes representatives of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia, the Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority (WA), the Department of Community Welfare and Education, Aboriginal organizations and the Police Department. The Committee has recently been renamed the Special Cabinet Committee on Aboriginal/Police and Community Relations and its membership and functions expanded. These changes were introduced in 1984 as a result of concern about Aboriginal/Police relations after the death of an Aboriginal man, John Pat, in police custody. There is now a full-time secretary/research officer and a Statewide liaison structure is being set up. On a pilot basis a regional liaison committee has been set up in the goldfields (Kalgoorlie) area of the State. There are 11 members of the Regional Committee, 6 of whom are Aboriginal. The Committee meets monthly and its minutes are sent to the Minister for Police. It visits outlying towns within the area either by invitation or on its own initiative and conducts some of its own research. Active work is being done to expand the scheme to other areas of Western Australia.[1421]

  • Victoria. An interim community liaison committee was established late in 1983 in an endeavour to improve relations with the police in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne. Various community groups as well as representatives of Aboriginal organizations constitute the committee. It is proposed that this group be set up on a more permanent basis.[1422]

  • New South Wales. An Aboriginal Liaison Unit was set up in 1981 and there are now ten officers who work full time on Aboriginal/police relations. These officers travel regularly throughout the State consulting with Aboriginal leaders and organisations about local policing needs and attempting to resolve local problems that may have developed between Aborigines and the police. The Unit does not, however, receive complaints against police. Other functions of the Unit include training and instructing other members of the force about Aboriginal culture and lifestyle, attending schools to discuss police issues in Aboriginal areas, .attending community meetings and developing a resource centre for police information.[1423] In addition local police and Aborigines participate in community committees that have been set up in some New South Wales towns with large Aboriginal populations.

  • Queensland. In Queensland where there is no formal scheme, meetings are held from time to time by senior police officers and Aboriginal representatives. There are two Aboriginal Liaison Officers, one stationed in Cairns and the other in Brisbane.[1424] Representatives of the local Aboriginal community also assist police training by giving lectures at. the Police Academy and the Police College.

870. Effectiveness of Existing Liaison Schemes. The success of current liaison systems is difficult to evaluate. Much may often be achieved merely by airing grievances or making both parties aware of particular problems. The South Australian Aboriginal/Police Liaison Committee can point to achievements such as the formulation of Police Circular No 354[1425] which sets out instructions for police when interrogating Aborigines, including a requirement to notify on request the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement. Field Officers employed by the Service have been given special status by the police department. They are issued with identification cards which the police recognise and they are accorded the same facilities made available to solicitors and prisoner’s relatives. Sergeant Frank Warner, a former field officer for Aboriginal/Police Liaison in the South Australian Police Force, considered the Committee to be a success:

Its effectiveness … ebbs and flows like all these things, perhaps depending at times on continuity of members … It is however, we feel an important thing to retain; it does give Aboriginal people from any organisation an avenue to police administration.[1426]

On the other hand Mr Garry Hiskey, formerly Senior Solicitor with the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, stated that police representatives did not regard the Committee as an appropriate forum for the airing or solution of complaints, whereas Aboriginal people regarded this as its primary function. He pleaded for the police to become more flexible and less technical regarding the matters raised at the Committee Meetings.[1427]

871. Views Expressed at Public Hearings. Strong support for Aboriginal/Police Liaison Committees as a way of improving relations was expressed at the Public Hearings.[1428] There was much interest in the South Australian model. At a hearing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia the view was expressed that committees would need to be established on a regional basis. Aboriginal people living in the area saw no relevance for themselves of a committee established in Perth.[1429] This proposal has since been implemented and as mentioned in paragraph 869 a regional committee has been established at Kalgoorlie. In Cairns the view was expressed that a liaison committee was worth trying provided the police representative was someone in a position of power, such as a Superintendent or the Inspector for the region.[1430] Mr Paul Coe, President of the Redfern Legal Service was in favour of establishing a liaison committee in New South Wales as a means of resolving tensions between Aborigines and the police provided the Aboriginal representatives on the Committee were able to meet with the police as equals.[1431]

872. Conclusions on Liaison Committees. Regular contact between Aboriginal organisations and State and Territory police forces to enable discussion on matters of mutual concern is a simple and straight-forward way to attempt to resolve conflicts and tensions as they arise. It will not solve all problems, but the widespread support for the idea expressed to the Commission indicates its potential value. Different mechanisms may be appropriate in different areas. A more formal system may be required in the capital cities than in country towns and in remoter areas, but the important thing is communication and the potential for achieving real change. Meetings between Aboriginal groups and the police must be more than merely an opportunity to publicly state concerns already well known to both sides. Detailed, particular discussions must be possible:

The danger of merely ‘opening the lines of communication’ is that it may present a facade of improvement while bona fide changes fail to occur. Thus, the communication must have a purpose; the forums should have real power to institute desired changes.[1432]