The Numbers Don't Add Up
21 October 1999
A slightly edited version was published in The Age on 21st October 1999.
Over the past month, the Sydney press has carried reports of controversy over proposals by the NSW Police Minister to make up a potential shortfall of $40 million in the police budget, including by closing inefficient one man police stations. The budget shortfall appears to have emerged mainly as a result of a 6 per cent wage increase granted to NSW police and the implementation of Premier Carr's promise in the March election to increase police numbers by 1,000 over four years. However, the NSW Police Association threatened industrial action on the ground that the proposed cuts would reduce operational capabilities and the issue of balancing the police budget is still being resolved.
Switch now to Victoria. For some time the Victorian Police Association has been pressing for an increase of 1,000 in police numbers and, although police command were reportedly not seeking any increase, the Victorian Budget for 1999-00 brought down in May announced that an additional 400 officers would be recruited over the next two years.
However, the Police Association's campaign continued and during the election campaign it succeeded in persuading (now) Premier Bracks to agree to provide another 800 police if elected - but over four years, ie the same rate of increase as former Premier Kennett was proposing. The Association also cleverly stage-managed a police "walk-out" from the Frankston police station to highlight alleged shortages and the by-election in Frankston East was used to further enhance the Association's case.
These developments suggest the need for careful assessment before reaching a conclusion on whether or not Victoria needs more police.
First (and most obviously), the adequacy or otherwise of police numbers is an issue of major concern to the community, which perceives a close connection between police numbers and crime rates. However, even leaving aside that no such close connection can be established, Victoria already has one of the lowest crime rates of any State and support for an increase in police numbers cannot be derived from that quarter.
Second, the NSW Labor Government has not only made similar (relative) promises in regard to police numbers but appears to be having similar problems in managing the issue. One interesting implication is that, while NSW police may have gained on the numbers issue, they may lose on the stations.
Third, while Victoria has less police per 100,000 population than most States, it also needs less as it is the most densely populated State. In fact, Australian Institute of Criminology figures show that Victoria had more police per 100,000 population at 30 June 1998 than NSW (216 compared with 212), which is the most comparable State.
Fourth, Victoria is assessed by the Commonwealth Grants Commission's (CGC) as needing to spend the lowest amount per head in order to achieve the average standard for the States. Yet we find that Victoria's actual spending on police services in 1997-98 was slightly above standard, equivalent to about $19 million in that year. Further, Victoria has been spending above standard for the past five years.
Fifth, following its affiliation with Trades Hall last year, the Victorian Police Association is now behaving like a traditional trade union in putting forward ambit claims. Its proposals and tactics should be examined rationally in this light and should not be accepted at face value, as some sections of the media appear to be doing.
Finally, the efficient delivery of police services and crime deterrence to the community is much more than a matter of police numbers. For example, whether or not a "culture" of corruption exists is obviously important, as experience in other States demonstrates. The fact that Victoria has been relatively free of such problems helps explain our lower crime rate and is feather in the cap of local police command.
However, concerns have emerged under the present command because of the constraints it has placed on Victorian police officers in implementing the law. These constraints effectively require certain politically sensitive groups to be treated with kid gloves and .they have raised concerns amongst rank and file that command may not support them in the out-turn of violent confrontations with suspected criminals.
This probably means that more police officers are required to keep the peace than if the law is administered without fear or favour. Moreover, there is a danger that criminal elements become bolder and more prepared to resort to force.
Increased drug related offences may also be reflecting the increasing tolerance to drug users being shown by political leaders and by the police, who recently dismissed out of hand the fully justified threat of Footscray traders to take the law into their own hands in responding to the major problems that they faced in carrying on their business.
In short, there is no basis to complaints about inadequacies in this State in police numbers or expenditure on police services. But there is concern, both within and without the police force, as to whether existing police operating procedures are in fact efficient and effective.