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Australia’s love of cops

Aug 17, 2020 • 16m 16s

This is a story about Australia’s psyche and the way our connection to policing makes us unique. During this pandemic, police have been handed unprecedented new powers, in stark contrast to the response elsewhere in the world. Today, Osman Faruqi on the nexus between police, politicians and the media.

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Australia’s love of cops

288 • Aug 17, 2020

Australia’s love of cops

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

This is a story about Australia’s psyche and the way our connection to policing makes us unique.

During this pandemic, police have been handed unprecedented new powers, in stark contrast to the response elsewhere in the word.

Today, Osman Faruqi on the nexus between police, politicians and the media.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Os, looking at the way that governments in Australia are handling this pandemic, what has stood out to you?

OSMAN:

So to me, there have been two really striking aspects of the way that Australia broadly has responded to this pandemic. And the first one is that it's largely and increasingly being seen as a police issue.

RUBY:

Osman Faruqi wrote about police reform for The Saturday Paper.

OSMAN:

You can see that from the way police have been put in charge of what are essentially public health issues, from things like the lockdown of Melbourne’s public housing towers to the broader issue of public health orders and how we have some of the highest fines, and highest rate of fines, in the developed world for people who are breaching covid restrictions.

The other thing that's really stood out to me in all this is that this is happening in Australia while the rest of the world is actually working to substantially reform the way police work.

RUBY:

Let's talk about that, the way in which police powers have been curtailed in some places since the Black Lives Matter protest that was sparked by the killing of George Floyd. So what reforms have happened since then?

OSMAN:

Yeah, in the United States, there's actually been quite a significant amount of change.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“A movement that shows no signs of abating across the United States, another day of massive crowds demanding police reforms. And it appears in some places, getting what they want.”

OSMAN:

For example, in the two months since George Floyds killing at the hands of police, 31 of America's biggest cities have implemented policies that restrict the way that police can physically apprehend alleged offenders. You know, they've banned chokeholds, for example.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“Tonight at 6pm, Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham, has banned the use of chokeholds by its police officers.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #2:

“Officers will also be required to intervene any time they see another police officer using unauthorized force…”

OSMAN:

Cities like L.A. and New York, which have a huge and long history of increasing police budgets year after year to deal with crime, have, for the first time in history, actually cut their police budgets.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“We will be moving funding from the NYPD to youth initiatives and social services…”

Unidentified Woman #1:
“This would also cut hiring, leaving LAPD with less than 10,000 officers, a staffing number not seen since 2008.”

OSMAN:

And the case of Minneapolis, which is where George Floyd was killed, the local government there has voted to entirely defund the police force.

Archival Tape --

“Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. To end policing as we know it. And to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe…”

OSMAN:

And it's not just happening in America. It's happening elsewhere in the world as well.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“In Wellington, thousands gathered for the BLM movement but they’re also asking what it means for our country.”

OSMAN:

Police in New Zealand have historically not been armed. They haven't carried weapons. But after the Christchurch massacre last year, the government instituted a trial with some police units would be armed.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #2:

“With guns at their hips the armed response teams were touted to be a new way of responding to violent crimes.”

OSMAN:

Now, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, the government ended that trial and announced that police would not be armed in New Zealand.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“Today’s decision signals a change in direction.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“I’ve been clear that I see New Zealand as a generally unarmed police service. And so our commitment is to continue to police in that way.”

OSMAN:

And all of that, what we're seeing now in the United States, in New Zealand, in Canada
is really stark contrast to what we've been seeing in Australia over the last couple of months.

RUBY:

Tell me more about that. How does all of this compare to what's been happening in Australia?

OSMAN:

So in Australia, rather than kind of sparking a real debate about the role that police play in society and, you know, limiting the way that police operate, we've kind of had this totally separate conversation which has been dominated by these conspiracy theories about the way the Black Lives Matter rallies have have spread coronavirus.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“Keiran, the number of COVID 19 cases linked to the Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne two weeks ago have risen to 5.”

OSMAN:

There was so much more media coverage on accusations that coronavirus spreading at these rallies than what those rallies were actually about, which is debating the powers and the way that police used them.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“They could very well be responsible for a second wave of the virus. And if that happens, grandparents who gave up seeing their grandkids - it all would have been for nothing.”

OSMAN:

And in Victoria, far from disarming or defunding or even de-tasking the police, the Andrews Labor government here has expanded its punitive approach to public health. It's increased fines in the last few weeks for people who breach public health orders. And it's given police the power to enter homes without a warrant.

And I think part of the reason why we're seeing it happen here has to do with something in our national cultural psyche. You know, we have a really long history of a particularly punitive and militarized approach to policing, and it goes all the way back to colonization.

RUBY:

What do you mean by that? What is unique about the way that policing has evolved in Australia?

OSMAN:

So the first official police forces in this country were introduced as a tool of colonial oppression aimed at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

And they were used to target and vanquish those indigenous communities. Militarized, armed and mounted police forces that were modeled on the kind of British regiments that were used to quell dissent in colonies like Northern Ireland and India were the model for policing in Australia.

And the end result of that was we had this militarized police force well before we saw them across most of Europe and the United States and, you know, before those centrally funded and really organized police forces existed elsewhere. In Australia, they were enforcing colonial rule, they were fighting the frontier wars.

And as the colony kept expanding, police were then used to further implement policies like protectionism and assimilation that were again aimed at subjugating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

You know, essentially police in Australia, this is what makes them unique, they've played this long term paramilitary and administrative role that hasn't been seen in most other countries. And in fact, in the last couple of decades, that approach has become even more entrenched.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Os, we're talking about policing in Australia and the way in which our history of policing informs this current moment. In your piece for The Saturday Paper, you mentioned something called penal populism. Can you tell me about what that is and what it means?

OSMAN:

It's a term that was coined by criminologists in the mid 1990s to describe this phenomenon that we're seeing play out in elections, essentially. And first, they saw it in the United States and then they saw it spread to other kind of Anglophone jurisdictions. And it refers to the way that politicians can harness, and in fact exacerbate community concern about crime to push through laws like mandatory sentencing and increase police budgets and give police more resources and more powers.

This kind of politics, the way it works is you basically create a problem by creating a sense of fear in the community and saying that crime is out of control. And then you create your own solutions, which generally rely on brute force. And it's popular with the police. It's popular with politicians. And the tabloid media in particular lap it up.

And it refers to things like the notorious three strike laws in the United States where an offender who's been convicted three times faces the maximum possible sentence automatically.

And there's no evidence that those kinds of measures actually work in reducing crime rates, but they were politically popular.

RUBY:

So just to be clear, you're saying that the way this works is that police or politicians start talking about how terrible crime is and that it's a huge, big problem in the community. Newspapers report on that. It's on the evening news. Then the community gets worried because of what they're seeing on the news. And then that's used as justification for these politicians to put in place harsher policies.

OSMAN:

That's right. It's really, it's basically like an echo chamber where you've got police, politicians and the media bouncing around these ideas that are in each of their interests to articulate. And I think the thing that makes it quite distinct and quite interesting as a phenomenon is it's not linked to the evidence. It's not a real response to actual rising crime rates. It's politicians creating a sense of fear and mistrust in the community in order then to present their own solution.

RUBY:

So why is this approach so popular among politicians? Does it play well for them? What do they get out of it?

OSMAN:

Yeah it does play well for them, and the most illustrative example of that is probably the state elections we saw in New South Wales throughout the 1990s.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“Crime, it’s a key election issue, and both the government and the opposition know it’s a vote winner.”

OSMAN:

They are referred to now as law and order auctions, both major parties were continually outbidding each other on tougher and tougher laws around sentencing, giving police greater powers, more weapons, and boosting their budgets.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2:

“New South Wales political leaders hit the crime beat today hoping to win votes, promising to boost police resources…”

OSMAN:

It then spread right around the country, and hit Victoria in 2010 when the Liberals won that election running really hard on a law and order campaign.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #3:

“We are going to train, recruit and train more police officers. And recruit and train additional Victoria police protective services officers to put on the train stations…”

OSMAN:

The current Victorian Premier Dan Andrews has adopted that approach. You know, he’s promised to spend billions growing the police force by bringing on thousands of new officers and has introduced harsher sentencing laws as well.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #4:

“The minister says despite Victoria being the second biggest state in terms of population, it now has the biggest police force with more than 17,000 sworn officers…”

OSMAN:

The problem with this kind of approach is that it might help to win elections, but its impact on actual crime is pretty debatable.

Crime rates have been steadily decreasing for a long time and this model of policing that has become so common in Australia is really highly visible, so the public feels safe but the only real consequence that its had has been to increase prison numbers - particularly amongst certain marginalised groups, like Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

RUBY:

And so in the current context of this pandemic, where there is increased policing, what are the consequences of all of this likely to be?

OSMAN:

Yeah, we've seen this from police numbers in both New South Wales and Victoria that the people who are being fined and policed the most during this pandemic are those who live in lower income suburbs compared to those who live in higher wealth areas. And it suggests that the enforcement of these health orders isn't really about stopping the viral transmission, but it's more about repeating the same patterns of policing. You know, certain marginalized communities in areas where there are just more police are being policed harder during this pandemic compared to other communities.

And the difference is, though, this time around is that just because of the sheer number of police on the streets during this pandemic and the new laws that are operating, you're also starting to see the kinds of people being policed who historically haven't been. Those kinds of stop and search police powers have overwhelmingly been used to target marginalized groups, in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

But now we've seen them start to be used against middle class white people as well. And I think what's interesting about this is that might, in and of itself, shift the way we talk about policing in Australia, because this conversation has stalled, right? That's the whole point. The conversation around Black Lives Matter and placing has stalled in Australia.

But now with police using their powers to target the kinds of people who normally remain aloof and disconnected from the way police have been operating are starting to feel the brunt of it. And that might mean that they're the ones who forced this conversation in a way that we haven't seen it before.

RUBY:

Right. Do you think we will see change?

OSMAN:

We might, but I think it’s a longshot. I mean, I think the fact that we haven’t so far seen change, and the rest of the world is racing ahead, doesn’t really fill me with much confidence.

But it’s worth acknowledging all the battles that had to be fought to get this stage in the first place, particularly in a country like the United States which is now kind of leading this debate.

The successful attempts to reform police there have come after decades of campaigns focusing on civil rights and anti-racism and acknowledging the way black communities have been oppressed since America’s founding. These things are all related.

In Australia there’s still such a strong denial about the genesis of this country and our origin being dispossession and genocide. And given how fundamental police were to that story, I don’t think we can address one without addressing the other.

RUBY:

Os, thank you so much for your time today.

OSMAN:

Thank you so much, Ruby.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

RUBY:

Also in the news…

16 more Victorians have died from Covid-19 with the death toll across the state exceeding 300.

But the Premier Dan Andrews said yesterday that the 279 new cases recorded on Sunday morning provided "cautious optimism and real hope".

The majority of the deaths reported yesterday occurred in aged care.

And New Zealand’s coronavirus outbreak has continued to grow, with 13 new cases reported yesterday.

All but one of the new cases were acquired locally and appeared to be linked to the cluster in Auckland, which was the source of the new outbreak.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

This is a story about Australia’s psyche and the way our connection to policing makes us unique. During this pandemic, police have been handed unprecedented new powers, in stark contrast to the response elsewhere in the world. Today, Osman Faruqi on the nexus between police, politicians and the media.

Guest: Editor of 7am, Osman Faruqi.

Background reading:

Policing as part of the national psyche in The Saturday Paper

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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288: Australia’s love of cops