Last week we saw thousands come together in the streets of Melbourne and around the nation to shine a spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement and demand an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody.
It is a cause that is more important than ever, and one that is personally close to my heart.
As a career police officer of 32 years, the head of Professional Standards Command and now with a role to advocate for improved Victoria Police services to Aboriginal communities, I continually reflect on our relationships with community.
I look at some of the conflict involving law enforcement agencies around the globe and can’t help but think of the preciousness of the relationship between police and the community and how important trust and confidence is to that relationship.
Whilst we don’t always get it right, I am of a view that there is trust and confidence at the heart of the strong relationship Victoria Police has with the Victorian community it serves.
But when words such as ‘over-representation’ and ‘inequality’ are used all too frequently to describe the experiences of the Aboriginal community in justice systems in Australia, it’s clear that more still has to be done.
In Victoria, we have not been untouched by the issues resonating around the world. Tragically, like elsewhere, Victoria has also seen Aboriginal community members lose their lives whilst in the care of the justice system.
In 2017, Ms Tanya Day tragically passed away after being held in a police cell in Castlemaine. The coroner has reviewed the circumstances surrounding the death of Ms Day and the matter has been referred to the Office of Public Prosecutions. For this reason, I will not say any more for now.
But what I will say is that as police, we are committed to protecting the community, keeping people safe and treating everyone with respect and dignity and any death in police custody is devastating and one death too many.
Which is why Victoria Police is continually taking steps to strengthen its relationships with Aboriginal communities in Victoria.
This starts with our commitment to the Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Framework 2018 – 2023 and Aboriginal Justice Agreement Phase 4 which seek to, amongst other things, improve economic, health, education and employment outcomes for Aboriginal Victorians, and will undoubtedly help to reduce the number of Aboriginal people entering the criminal justice system.
By playing our part, Victoria Police can help to address the drivers of the issue, rather than continuing to respond to the symptoms.
What does this look like in practice for Victoria Police?
It’s by embedding the principles of self-determination in everything we do and ensuring Aboriginal communities are a part of every decision that affects them.
It’s by supporting appropriate policy reform initiatives such as the decriminalisation of public drunkenness and by continually refining our service delivery on the frontline, through programs such as those that provide opportunities for young Aboriginal people to be diverted away from the justice system.
It’s by having 14 Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers and around 135 Police Aboriginal Liaison Officers in police stations across the state – to build connections with Aboriginal communities, and act as that liaison for those who want or need our help.
It’s training our police, Protective Services Officers and Police Custody Officers in a way that is culturally aware and informed.
This training gives our employees crucial insight into the experiences of others which leads to a different way of thinking, a different way of interacting and more holistic and integrated problem solving.
It’s by implementing compulsory family violence training for all police that is specific to the family violence context within Aboriginal communities. It has also been developed in partnership with the Aboriginal community.
It’s by being committed to increasing the representation of Aboriginal employees across our organisation.
It’s by being connected with communities at the grassroots through our regular and ongoing attendance at Aboriginal Justice Forums, and Regional and Local Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committees. These platforms are a genuine way for the community to hold us to account and be part of the discussion and decision making that affects them.
All of this, and more, will continue into the future.
What will success look like? We’ll rightly turn to the community to let us know when we get there.
But I know for certain it will be at a time when there are no Aboriginal deaths or serious injuries in custody. There will no longer be an over-representation of Aboriginal people in the justice system. And the marches on the streets of Melbourne will be for reasons of celebration instead of protest.
Assistant Commissioner Russell Barrett is the head of the Victoria Police Professional Standards Command.
Reviewed 12 June 2020